What happens when you put a classroom on wheels and park it in the poorest neighborhoods of San Francisco?
By Elizabeth Weil | Photographs by Eugene Riley and Chris Shurn | March 27, 2019
One day late last August, Shelia Hill sat at a table on a sidewalk in Sunnydale, outside a San Francisco city bus that had been painted an exceedingly upbeat shade of apple green, yelling at every car that rolled by.
“YOU GOT YOUR HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?”
“Hey, how YOU doing? You got a minute?”
Shelia — who is 51 and has bright red hair and who is fond of sharp sweats, lacquered nails, and a pair of Adidas that say love — was sitting with Katie, the bus driver, trying to recruit students. Shelia was doing all the work.
“How’s your day going? Blessed?”
“Hey, YOU got a diploma? You want an application?”
Sunnydale — the name of a housing project but really the name of a neighborhood — is one of the poorest, most forgotten parts of San Francisco. If Shelia could get people to fill out applications, she could perhaps get them to change their lives, since the bus was a traveling classroom, the latest project of the Five Keys Charter School. Shelia had done it — she’d bucked nearly 40 years of failing at school and earned a high school degree. Though to be honest, she hadn’t done it on her first try. Or her second. Or third. Or fourth try, either. By the time Shelia arrived at the Five Keys classroom at 1099 Sunnydale Avenue, in 2014, she’d not learned how to read in high school and dropped out. She’d not learned how to read at San Francisco City College and dropped out. “The lady told me I was wasting my time,” she says. “That I just need to get a job, let the school thing go.” She’d fallen into drugs, prostitution, bad relationships, and jail.