‘A hidden gem’ for homeless kids

Mustard Seed School has provided a learning environment to children in uncertain housing situations for 30 years

This mural in Mustard Seed’s courtyard is by Shonna McDaniels in collaboration with students, and centers around the theme of transformation.

This mural in Mustard Seed’s courtyard is by Shonna McDaniels in collaboration with students, and centers around the theme of transformation.

Photo by Margherita Beale

Donations can be brought or mailed to Mustard Seed School, 1321 N. C St., Sacramento, CA 95811.

Dixie Page’s 9-year-old daughter still sings the songs she learned at Sacramento’s Mustard Seed School six years ago. As a preschooler, Tynileah learned to write and picked up an affinity for art that she carries to this day.

Page, who is currently homeless, says the support she and her daughter received from the specialized educational program is immeasurable.

“My daughter, she learned so much with her character. It helped her to deal with her feelings and she’s a lot calmer now,” Page said. “She goes to [Smythe Academy of Arts and Sciences School] now. It’s our first school with the uniforms and everything. But she’s come around to it. She’s doing very well.”

Established in 1989, Mustard Seed recently celebrated its 30-year anniversary as a free private school for children experiencing homelessness. Nearly 6,000 kids have walked through its doors, which averages to about 200 students each year. But Mustard Seed director Casey Knittel said enrollment has noticeably increased in the past five years, with 262 students last year.

While that would be good news at most schools, Mustard Seed is a little different. It is a program of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, the city’s largest independent homeless charity that operates without government funds. Climbing enrollment doesn’t mean more money from the state, but it does suggest Sacramento’s well-documented homelessness crisis is finding new depths.

“You can’t meet the level of service sometimes that you want to without expanding your staff,” Knittel said.

That means recruiting more volunteers, as well as adding a flexible classroom for whatever grade has the most kids at the time. “The word I would use to describe our staff and volunteers is … dogged,” Knittel said. “They keep coming back and meeting the needs of the kids wherever they are, no matter how many are here, on any given day.”

That may be because several of Mustard Seed’s staff first came to the school as parents of new students, giving them a unique perspective on how Sacramento has become tougher for homeless families.

Mustard Seed is easy to miss. The campus is tucked in a corner of a city where blue tarps are commonplace. A fence spanning C Street separates the school from the Dos Rios Triangle. Walk through the office and into the courtyard and color jumps out: blues, reds, yellows and greens of plants, flowers and intricate murals.

“It’s a hidden gem of Sacramento,” said Vina Nguyen, who teaches middle school. “You feel it when you walk into the school. The kids want to be here. The teachers love being here.”

Mustard Seed offers preschool through middle school to children age 3-15. At any given time, between 30 and 50 children attend class. The K-2 program typically has the highest enrollment, Knittel said. On average, children stay between five and six weeks, but some attend the entire academic year.

Because students come and go, there are no tests or grades, and every lesson is taught on a day-to-day basis to accommodate the fluctuating enrollment.

Lucia Vega is Mustard Seed’s outreach coordinator. Like other employees, Vega was once homeless and has a 13-year-old who attended preschool.

When a family first arrives at the school, Vega works with them to understand their most pressing needs and connect them with the right resources, including housing, clothing, counseling and medical services. Vega also searches the places where homeless families stay to let them know there’s a school for their children. Students come from motels or couch-surf with friends. Some live in parks or tents. Others, on the side of the road.

“We provide transportation, so we pick kids up every morning from motels or light-rail stations or on the street and bring them to school and we drop them off,” Vega explained. “If kids need glasses, we make eye appointments. We have a dentist that we work with. We can take two kids per month on an emergency basis. We make sure they have food. If they need clothes, we get them clothes. Whatever the family needs.”

Like Loaves & Fishes, Mustard Seed relies entirely on private donations and community support. That has specific benefits.

Student resource specialist Annabelle Hufana guides students to class following morning playground time.

Photo by Margherita Beale

“By intentionally not accepting government funding, it allows us to be able to stand up a little bit more to advocate for people experiencing homelessness and to amplify the voices of our guests without worrying about being worried about cuts in funding,” Knittel said.

This independence also allows children to enroll in the school as early as their first visit.

Mustard Seed’s enrollment figures suggest more families are being pushed to the margins. Of the 5,979 students the school enrolled since 1989, 20.6% attended during the past five years alone. Of the 262 children who attended Mustard Seed in 2018, only 104 returned to the public school system, leaving more than 60% to fend for an education outside of it.

Knittel, who has been involved with Loaves & Fishes for a decade, attributed the increased enrollment to a tightening housing market and less room at emergency shelters.

“This year, I can’t think of a single family that’s been able to find housing on their own,” Knittel said. “It’s just that costs are too high. There are too many people who want those apartments. And there are vulnerable families at the unfortunate end of that system.”

Living on the razor’s edge is nothing new for Liana Luna.

The school’s officer manager, she enrolled her daughter Laila into the preschool 10 years ago when she was staying at a shelter and in drug treatment.

“Laila often got pushed to the side or dragged along with everything that I was doing,” Luna said. “I had to get at the bus stop. I had to get to my classes or else they wouldn’t count.

“And here you have a 4 year old who’s curious about everything, wanting to see everything, wanting to know everything. I just didn’t have the capacity or the time to nurture those moments.”

Luna said coming to Mustard Seed helped her find housing, while allowing her daughter to not only pursue academics, but to “be a kid.”

Now, the hardest part of her job is wanting to help families but not having enough resources, she said. Luna said when she was homeless, there was a clearer route to housing.

“You knew that if you’d gotten a shelter and you did these things, you would end up in housing,” Luna said. Now, she said, “Either the resources are not enough for the population that is homeless or what’s going on in our system right now is that it’s just harder and harder to get a place.”

Luna and her three children recently fell back into homelessness after her apartment complex was sold. “It was scary,” Luna said. “I have an income. I have a job. I don’t have any evictions. … What I ended up realizing is that whatever is going on in Sacramento right now as far as rent goes … it’s absurd.”

Ten months of searching and around $600 in application fees later, Luna found housing.

Luna said her experience allows her to connect to the families.

“The main thing is letting the parents know right off the bat that I’ve been where they’ve been,” Luna said. “I understand how it feels to enroll a child into a school that is for homeless families and all of the shame and fear that goes into that. If you open with that, our families get a sense of comfort knowing that they’re not being judged.”

Luna said the school has never strayed from its mission—to be a constant for children assailed by uncertainty.

“We have some difficult situations and sometimes kids disappear and we don’t hear from them again,” Luna said. “But when we hear from the kids coming back years later, that in itself is everything. When they remember a person’s name or a certain field trip. We were that light and that’s probably the most important thing that we can do.”