Our 2021-22 Innovation Issue salutes educators who dare to imagine a world where life is better for their students:
“If we’re not taking care of students’ basic needs, we’re not giving them the tools to reach their potential academic development.”
Julie White has the title of school counselor at Paramount Unified School District, but she is so much more.
She oversees programs at 19 school sites for foster youth and students experiencing homelessness. In the past four years, working from the district office, she has built a network of support services for these students, whose numbers are rising in the pandemic.
If families are homeless, she tries to find them permanent housing. If homeless and foster youth need role models, she finds them mentors. Families needing food, clothing or toiletries can pick up supplies at the resource center that she created with the help of her union, Teachers Association of Paramount (TAP). And if she thinks that students may be overlooked by Santa, she bestows Christmas gifts through a foundation she created.
“If we’re not taking care of the basic needs of students, we’re not giving them the necessary tools to reach their potential academic development,” says White. “Students who are in the foster care system or who are homeless have so many stress factors. But if we can fulfill their needs and show them love, they will bloom.”
To help students academically, White fostered a partnership between her district and School on Wheels, a nonprofit whose volunteers tutor homeless children in the McKinney-Vento program (from a federal law allocating funds to the homeless).
“The organization also provides a free laptop and gift cards as motivators,” White says.
For foster youths, she partnered with the Los Angeles County Office of Education to provide in-person or virtual tutoring.
To help homeless families, White turned to the city of Paramount, where officials recommended Family Promise, a national nonprofit that offers housing assistance and other services so families can stabilize. Thanks to White’s partnership with Family Promise, seven families are now off the streets.
“I’m super proud of this. I literally cry when I think about it. I just wish we could help all of our families.”
Ariane Dearing’s family was offered a hotel room for 28 days through Family Promise. White worked tirelessly to find them housing while Dearing was in the hospital giving birth to her fourth child.
“Julie White goes above and beyond,” Dearing says. “She tries to help families as much as she can. She’s a really good person and has a good heart.”
White opened a resource center at a school where students and families could obtain necessities such as food, clothing, school supplies and hygiene items, along with medical, dental and mental health referrals. The center is now a drive-through program at the TAP office. Partners such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Own Your Own, Feed the Children and Frito-Lay donate food and other necessities. She estimates 300 families participate.
When White told her doctor about the work she was doing, her doctor handed her a check. The donation prompted her to start her own foundation, Treasured Little Hearts, which provides resources for underprivileged youths and their families. TAP members generously donated $5,000 in gift cards for students to open presents on Christmas.
White has expanded existing district programs that provide mentors for homeless and foster youths. She personally interviews and hires the mentors, who receive a small paycheck. They provide social-emotional support and serve as role models. When students graduate and have only two invitations for the ceremony, mentors are often invited, says White.
Her job can be exhausting and overwhelming. Sometimes she receives late-night calls when school families are experiencing emergency situations.
“Lots of people hear the word ‘Paramount’ and think we are a wealthy community because of Paramount Studios. But we are a Title I district with a mostly low-socioeconomic Hispanic population.”
White, the daughter of a minister and a teacher, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. She began her career teaching elementary school. During that time students would come to her with their problems — and there was never enough time to listen.
“I would always say, ‘Honey, can you tell me later?’ And later never came. There was a lot of pressure to keep the students on pace. I felt horrible about it.”
Eighteen years ago, she became a counselor, and ever since she has loved being able to say “Honey, you can tell me about that now” when students are upset. Even though she is busy overseeing programs these days, White counsels individual students when needed.
She had a steep learning curve when she was put in charge of the district’s foster youth and homeless students’ programs, but happily accepted the challenge.
“I felt that I was either going to swim or sink in this job — but instead I jumped on my boogie board. I love, love, love what I do.”