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Teen Goes From Sleeping In Car To High School Graduate, Thanks To 1st Of Its Kind Program In L.A.

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Nora Perez wants to become an FBI agent someday. Although that may be an ambitious goal for any recent high school graduate to have, it's even more so for a girl who calls a parked car home.

Fortunately for Perez, and thousands of other homeless teenagers in Los Angeles, her academic and professional dreams remain very much in reach.

Perez benefitted greatly from the Los Angeles County Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Homeless Education Program, which was largely responsible for helping 100 homeless students get from the streets of Southern California to the graduation stage this past year, PBS reported.

"Every time I try to give up, I think about it, and I'm like, 'You know what? No,'" Perez told PBS as part of the network's American Graduate Project series. Her family became homeless after her father lost his job Perez's freshman year. "I'm not going to give up. Now that I've accomplished so many things, I'm not going to give up."

The program provides students with the essentials they need to succeed, such as backpacks, school supplies, hygiene kits and other items. It functions in compliance with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which helps ensure each homeless youth has equal access to free public education. As LAUSD currently has 13,794 homeless students identified within its boundaries, Perez is just one of many who've benefited immeasurably from the initiative's support.

Over the past five years, 14 wellness centers have also been built from a voter-approved $40 million measure to further help struggling students in the country's second largest public school district. The purpose of the centers is to increase student access to vital health and mental health services, wellness promotion and health career options. Officials told PBS the centers and the resources they provide are a first for the U.S.

According to Debra Duardo, executive director of LAUSD's Student Health and Human Services Department, the district's long-term commitment to its most vulnerable students is paying off.

"We see many of our students that are going on to college, four-year universities, getting scholarships, because of the services that they're getting early on," she told PBS.

While significant strides have been made combating student homelessness in Los Angeles, most of the country is continually grappling to curb the crisis. In fact, a report provided by the Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program last year shows that 1,168,354 million K-12 students did not have a stable place to call home during the 2011-12 school year -- a record-high number, the Washington Post reported. North Dakota had the largest increase from the year before, with a staggering 212 percent increase.

The eye-opening numbers show profound challenges ahead, but Nancy Gutierrez, the LAUSD Homeless Education Program coordinator, believes it starts with giving students a sense of value.

"We want to empower them with the same opportunities as any other student to be able to break the cycle of extreme poverty that they're facing," she told PBS.

To learn more about LAUSD's Homeless Education Program, visit the initiative's website.

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