“I couldn’t sleep that night,” recalls David Boatwright (JD ’81) of the first time he met the children at the Monarch School in downtown San Diego, California. What began as a casual working lunch in 2000 turned out to be an introduction to a school for homeless children, signaling a new phase of his professional life.
Of counsel to the Procopio law firm in San Diego, Boatwright was introduced to the school by his client, Julie Dillon, a board member of the Monarch School. As they ate lunch and occasionally glanced at the children playing in a courtyard outside, Dillon mentioned that they were all homeless. The children were all so well presented that Boatwright had a difficult time believing her until the principal of the school suddenly appeared at their table.
“I was being set up!” Boatwright recalls. “Within five minutes, the principal was taking me on a tour, and I met the kids and sat in the classrooms.” The very next morning Boatwright called Monarch School and offered to be involved in any way needed. Ten years later, he has been a decade-long member of the board of directors, was president of the board for two years, and provides pro bono legal work for the school.
The school provides accredited education to approximately 160 homeless and at-risk children ages 4 to 19 through a team of teachers, administrators, and volunteers with a budget half-funded by the state and half-funded through the Monarch School Project, a nonprofit support organization. Founded in 1987 as The P.L.A.C.E. (Progressive Learning Alternative for Children’s Education) as a drop-in center and “place to get kids off the streets,” the school now provides for the children’s basic needs with food, clothing, counseling, tutoring, healthcare, and support programs that keep students at school until the shelters open at 6:30 p.m.
Beyond changing the lives of its students, the Monarch School is notable for another reason. “It’s actually illegal for us to do what we do in most of the United States,” Boatwright states.
He goes on to explain that public schools catering exclusively to homeless children—who are defined by federal law as living either on the streets, in a shelter, or in a single room occupancy—were banned across America as part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, except in one county in Arizona and three California counties: San Diego, San Joaquin, and Orange.
“Someone convinced legislative staffers that going to a ‘homeless’ school would be stigmatizing for children. But we know that the opposite is true. Here they don’t feel judged, they feel comfortable; they come here because they know the only way to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty is to get an education.”
As a nationally renowned lawyer who has been recognized for seven straight years by Best Lawyers in America (Woodward/White Inc.), Boatwright is primed and ready to take the issue back to Congress to make a difference for homeless children on a national scale.
“I’d like the law changed yesterday,” he asserts. “However, we’ve got to be smart because timing is everything. Right now, the legislature in Washington, D.C. is not focused on No Child Left Behind. When it starts getting attention again, we have to be on our game 100 percent.”
To achieve that state of readiness, Boatwright and his colleagues at Monarch School work tirelessly to prove that the children who pass through the school—often for just months at a time due to the transitory nature of their family lives—leave with a better chance for success than when they enrolled. Among the many accolades Monarch can boast: founder Sandra McBrayer was chosen as United States Teacher of the Year in 1994; teacher Stephen Keiley was named San Diego’s Teacher of the Year last year; Measure of Academic Progress tests show that students on average advance one grade level for each six months they are enrolled at Monarch, despite typically entering three grade levels behind mainstream-educated children in their age brackets; and in 2008, the San Diego County Grand Jury issued a glowing report about their work titled “Hope for Homeless Children—An Educational Success.”
“The report basically said that what we do is working and asked why programs like ours aren’t being implemented across the country.” While a grand jury investigation may sound intimidating, Boatwright remembers the process as a proud affirmation of his work. “We knew it was going well when the grand jury finished interviewing our principal and one of the jury members was so moved that they handed us a $5,000 check to continue our work.”
This April, he had his first opportunity to bring the issue to the attention of lawmakers during a roundtable discussion in San Diego about the state of public education with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Congressman Duncan Hunter, chair of the Education Subcommittee. Teacher Keiley described his award-winning role at school as “the best gig in town.”
Secretary Duncan left the roundtable with a vow to tour the facility and summarized what he had heard as exactly the kind of program that should be rolled out across the country instead of legislated against. A defining point of this momentous first meeting emerged when Duncan was understandably moved by Keiley’s description of seeing one of his students, “C,” scramble out of park bushes one morning with her mother and sister after sprinklers turned on; Keiley added that “C’s” scores improved on all state-administered tests.
In his decade with the school, Boatwright has seen a great many examples of children triumphing over their circumstances; he remembers one second-grade student stopping him on a tour of the school to ask if he would listen to her read. “So I go over and sit down and she starts to read to me. Meanwhile, her friend is watching her as she says, ‘the crooked crocodile and the angry alligator.’ Her friend looked up at me and just said, ‘That’s alliteration.’”
Of the many things that he does at Monarch School, he says that helping to develop the means of testing students’ progress, and seeing the results of that progress over time, is “one of the most rewarding things” about his involvement. He iterates that almost 100 percent of the students who stay at Monarch long enough to graduate will go on to attend college, with support from their alma mater that includes financial assistance, counseling, and tutorial and technological support. He also notes that after graduating college, or jumping straight into the workforce, many alumni return to the school to “pay it forward” to another generation of children in need.
He remembers “S,” who graduated with his high school diploma despite a shockingly neglectful upbringing.
“He came to us in high school absolutely illiterate, but he was the nicest young guy and graduated about six years ago,” Boatwright recalls. “Flash forward a few years, and I’m walking through the courtyard of the school and I see a huge human being walking through in slacks and tie. It was one of the San Diego Chargers, walking with ‘S.’”
“S” was the manager of a smoothie branch and had organized a campaign within his company that this Charger would match every dollar donated to his former school. “None of us knew he was doing this. He just came down one day and presented this gift to us.”
During his time at his own alma mater, Boatwright was a member of the Pepperdine Law Review. Two of his four children attended Pepperdine’s Seaver College—and all have volunteered many hours of their time at the San Diego school that is such a big part of Boatwright’s life. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Northern Arizona University before arriving at the School of Law, it’s not surprising that he ventured into financial territory as a legal professional; he is a transactional business and tax lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions and joint ventures.
Today, he serves on the Board of Visitors at the School of Law and, as of 2007, is retired from the partnership of Latham & Watkins. His prolific background in finance and law, however, will continue to be utilized for Monarch School, including what he calls one of his primary responsibilities: securing a new campus to accommodate a larger portion of San Diego’s 13,000+ homeless children population. The new campus will upgrade Monarch from its current 15,000 square feet of property to a 100,000-square-foot lot, resplendent with state of the art classrooms, laboratories, sports facilities, and playgrounds.
The move will be a culmination of 10 years of dedication from Boatwright to the mission that took hold of his heart on that fateful day after lunch with Julie Dillon, and he yearns for the time when that work will pay off even further to educate, support, and transform countless more children. “When you see these children healthy, and really taken care of, you light up inside,” he says. “This is an absolute labor of love.”