August 23, 2017

A San Francisco nonprofit transformed a city bus into a mobile classroom

Violent neighborhoods kept some students out of school, so Five Keys brought the school to them

Five Keys Schools and Programs refurbished a retired San Francisco city bus and built it into a state-of-the-art mobile classroom. Photo courtesy of Five Keys Schools and Programs

It’s been compared to an ice cream truck, luring people out of their homes for a taste of something wonderful. But our sleek, new mobile classroom on a retired city bus peddles something better: an education.

Our lime-green bus, emblazoned with the name The Self-Determination Project, is an ambassador for Five Keys, helping people choose their own path in life rather than stumbling along one strewn with gangs, drugs, and possibly, jail.

The first-of-its-kind, state-of-the-art classroom has a library, a cozy study nook, Internet access, Chromebooks, white boards, desks, and a teacher. It will follow a regular route through San Francisco’s public housing projects, bringing a chance to earn a high school diploma to students who’ve been waylaid by gang conflicts or other turmoil.

Some say not everyone deserves a second chance, but this bus is our effort to make sure everyone gets a real chance.

When I started at Five Keys, it was a small charter high school in a jail. That, too, was a first. The seed for the school was planted in 2003 when then-San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey and then-Program Director Sunny Schwartz were brainstorming alternatives to the age-old routine of rounding them up, bringing them to jail, and sending them out only for them to come back again. They wanted vibrant programs to turn people’s lives around.

Together, they created Five Keys Charter School, the first jail-based public charter high school, which has expanded to over 70 partner sites, inside and outside jails, restoring communities throughout California. About 5,000 students are enrolled on any given day in one of our programs, many of whom have never been incarcerated. Thousands of our students earn their high school diploma. Some go on to higher education. Most have not returned to jail.

Our profits are our people and their success begins with a graduation cap and gown.

Today, our recidivism rate is 26 percent, compared with the rest of California’s, which is 65 percent. Those who question investing in “criminals” and “dropouts” should consider that return on investment. Our profits are our people and their success begins with a graduation cap and gown.

Like many people, I took my education for granted. I grew up in neighborhoods where I could shoot squirt guns and toss a Nerf football without fear. The only police presence in my life was watching “Adam-12” and “The Rookies” on TV with my family. I didn’t cross gang territory or fear stray bullets on my way to school. Not going to school was not an option. I didn’t realize how “privilege” was influencing my life.

Since coming to Five Keys, many of the students I’ve met share more in common with Emerald Montes, who found her way back to school through Five Keys. Emerald, 17, grew up surrounded by gangs.

“When I was 14 and 15, I couldn’t go to school,” she said. “I was just doing so much bad stuff, it prevented me from going to school. At Five Keys, the difference is they are more flexible,” Montes explained. She is on the rebound. “I’m a busy young woman now. I have a job and an internship.”

For her, Five Keys offers accessibility. Class begins the day you enroll, hours are flexible, and, in addition to our jail sites, classrooms are in the neighborhoods where students most need them. We partner with other service providers to get students the support they need. And it’s free. Yet we found that is still not enough. In one housing project, young adults in the Towerside gang couldn’t traverse four blocks to class for fear of crossing paths with Sunnyside gang members. Quality classroom space isn’t always available where it’s needed.

Enter Five Keys Mobile: The Self Determination Project. The city was ready to scrap some old buses. Five Keys said, “We’ll take three.” One would become our classroom, and we have big plans for the others. Funded by grants from Google and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, we partnered with architect Deanna Van Buren who specializes in developing spaces to address the root causes of mass incarceration.

Parked next to our partnering organizations, which provide a myriad of supports for our students, this light-filled, mobile classroom, equipped with the latest technology, inspires learning.

The bus classroom is just a starting point. Next up is a resource bus to park outside the jail to intercept women released from jail and provide transportation, housing, and counseling supports so they don’t walk straight back into the hands of trouble. With Van Buren and other partners, we are working toward a Pop-up Resource Village–an entire village of mobile resources and services to rejuvenate blighted neighborhoods.

Rena Ortiz, a recent graduate, said it best: “I feel as if this bus is going to change so much. Being able to walk out of my house and see a bus that’s full of education—that is hope on wheels.”

Our model is replicable. We hope communities around the country will get on the bus.

Steve Good

Five Keys Schools and Programs

By Steve Good is the executive director of Five Keys Schools and Programs. With decades of school leadership experience—from teacher to vice principal to principal to executive director—Steve leads a team of almost 400, and has built partnerships with 70 organizations in six California counties to reduce recidivism and restore justice. Under Steve's leadership, Five Keys has expanded from 175 students to 5,000 per day, winning multiple awards, including 2014 Charter School of the Year in California; the 2015 Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Governance; and the Smart on Crime Award from the California Attorney General. He’s developed a collective impact model beyond bars that he hopes will be replicated in other states. Steve and Five Keys reach into communities providing hope with and second chances for a high school diploma.