Ken educates hundreds of homeless teens at Crosswalk

by Jody Lawrence-Turner (The Spokesman-Review)

Teacher Ken Jernberg is unflappable among the chaos at Crosswalk, a Spokane teen homeless shelter.

One day last week, a few unfocused teens flitted around the shelter’s school rooms while other students bombarded Jernberg with questions or requests, as still others spoke excitedly to each other about the day’s happenings. Through it all, the teacher stayed focused on each task at hand.

Jernberg started the school at the shelter in 1986, and he’s never left. The 62-year-old has a passion for educating the shelter’s traumatized and often homeless teens.

"It takes a curiosity and patience to watch, observe them and then things slowly reveal themselves. When they are ready to ask you a question or talk to you, that’s the opportunity to teach," Jernberg said. "When you work with kids who are at risk and are challenged … I look for the good in them—because there’s good in all of them—and teach to that goodness."

Crosswalk’s school, which is supported by Community Colleges of Spokane, is open to young adults 16 to 21, not just the teens who live at the shelter. Jernberg says he works with about 25 to 30 students per day. The program primarily helps students earn their GEDs. But if a new student has 16 high school credits, he or she can participate in a high school completion program to get a diploma.

Additionally, there’s a technology component. For example, students learn how to create video games or compose video documentaries.

Jernberg is only paid to work three days a week, but he’s there far more than that, said Marilee Roloff, founder of Crosswalk Teen Shelter—which houses more than 1,000 teens annually—and president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.

"Ken is super-dedicated," Roloff said.

Jernberg has been an educator for 40 years. Before arriving at Crosswalk, he taught kids in special education and at institutions, such as juvenile detention.

He said he identifies with his students; his own educational experience was unstable because his family moved around a lot.

"But right now, I feel like I am a more effective teacher than I’ve ever been," he said. About four years ago, heart problems almost killed him. "I really identify with loss and grief, and therefore the kids."

"Ken is great," said Kala Williams, 19. "I like this school because I can come and go, and do a little bit at a time."

It’s an untraditional classroom. Williams, for instance, decided after being there for a while Thursday that she wasn’t up for studying.

"There are times and days in which you have to respect their choice not to learn," Jernberg said. "But there are times when they need to do things differently. You have to approach every situation differently."

Alexander Opry, 19, first met Jernberg when he arrived at the school four years ago.

"He’s an effective teacher. … He hopes for the best in even the bleakest of adolescents," said Opry, who has his GED and is planning to go to college. "Ken gave me hope. Sure we joke, and he gets on my nerves, but he’s very serious about his work."

One lesson he taught Opry was "to better the world, you have to better yourself. Be serious about your education."

About 20 students graduate from Crosswalk each year, said Jernberg, who plans to help many more meet that basic educational goal. "I want to do this until I can’t do it anymore."

This article, written by Jody Lawrence-Turner, was originally published in The Spokesman-Review on February 28, 2011.