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SF jail school’s new bus to deliver education across gang lines

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Five Keys Schools and Programs’ new “school on wheels”, the nation’s first mobile school for adults aimed to serve residents in Bayview-Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, Sunnydale and the Tenderloin. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A charter school based in San Francisco County Jail has turned an old Muni bus into a mobile classroom that can cross gang lines so that students from rough neighborhoods don’t have to.

Five Keys Charter School rolled out the mobile classroom Thursday to help bring schooling to the nearly 90,000 San Francisco residents who lack a high school diploma, according to Executive Director Steve Good. The bus is reportedly the first of its kind in the country.

The mobile classroom is just the latest expansion for Five Keys Charter, which in 2008 began to open satellite learning centers outside of jail that have grown from San Francisco to five other counties as far as San Bernardino. The charter offers high school diplomas to older students both inside and out of jail.

“Even though we have learning centers throughout San Francisco, some of the learning centers are still in rival gang territories,” Good said. “In one case literally three stop signs up at Santos Street, students can’t cross that to attend school with us. This bus can cross that, park there and people can come and attend classrooms.”

The bus will stop at yet-to-be determined locations daily to serve students free of charge. The stops may include public housing in Potrero Hill, Sunnydale and Double Rock, according to Good.

Good said there are more than 7,000 residents in the Bayview alone without a high school diploma.

“There’s a direct connection between the disenfranchised neighborhoods and the folks that are in county jails,” Good told a crowd Thursday outside the City College of San Francisco campus on Oakdale Avenue, where the bus was unveiled.

Tiaira Breaux, a 26-year-old Five Keys graduate, said the bus is important because “there are certain kids who can’t cross territories.” Breaux recalled a shooting on the T-Third Muni train after class at Five Keys Charter that she said was gang-related.

“Luckily the guy actually survived but it made me realize a lot of kids can’t go across the street or they can’t go around the corner,” Breaux said. “So the bus makes it easier. They can just do their work on the bus and feel safe and secure.”

On Thursday morning, Katie J. Leasau helmed the bus parked outside the CCSF campus. It was her first official day as the bus driver for Five Keys, though she previously worked as an AC Transit driver.

“This bus has been in the works for probably over a year,” said Leasau, fidgeting with the controls on the side of her chair. “Where it is now, who knew this was a Muni bus?”

The bus has been outfitted with laptop computers in a row along each of its sides. The back of the bus features comfortable benches, a bookshelf and a ceiling that turns the reflecting light blue.

There are hints of the busses’ past, however. Leasau had to stop her interview with the San Francisco Examiner because the back door was stuck. Though covered up, the indentation of the Muni logo is still visible along the side of the bus.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency donated the bus to Five Keys Charter, Good said. The bus was refurbished with $100,000 from Google, $100,000 from Five Keys Charter and $40,000 from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Sunny Schwartz said she co-founded Five Keys Charter with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department in 2003 because “everyone has a right to dignified, free, accessible education.”

“This is yet another step to put our words into deeds,” Schwartz said at the bus unveiling.

Five Keys Charter is one of the rare charter schools in San Francisco to have unanimous support from the Board of Education, which is typically critical of charters for using public school resources.

“We’re picking up the crumbs that fall through the crack,” Good said. “We’re not taking students away from the school district, we are

reengaging students that left the school district.”

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