Santa Cruz pilot project equips foster youth with education champions

An Oakland-based nonprofit group is building a national model to help foster youth overcome one of their biggest challenges: staying in school.

Moving among multiple homes, often dealing with the trauma of neglect or abuse on top of being separated from parents and siblings, fewer than 50 percent of foster children graduate from high school. That in turn leads to high rates of unemployment, homeless and incarceration as adults.

FosterEd, a national initiative by the Oakland nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, is attempting to change those odds state by state. In California, home to about 14 percent of the country’s 400,000 foster youth, FosterEd has begun with a pilot project in Santa Cruz County.

The method: appointing an “educational champion” for each foster child in a community — preferably a biological parent, even if the child doesn’t currently live with them, since most foster children return home, said Casey Schutte, project manager for the Santa Cruz FosterEd initiative. But champions could also be other caregivers, relatives or volunteers.

Education champions are paired with education coaches to help with everything from constructing e-mails to teachers to initiating complicated individualized education programs required for special education students. They also learn about their rights, what they can request of school districts and other agencies, and how to encourage and engage children in learning and goal setting.

“It’s all about building up the educational champion’s capacity,” Schutte said.

The goal is to give each foster youth a FosterEd liaison who creates an educational team for them consisting of teachers, social workers, relatives, therapists, court appointed special advocates (CASA) and others. They draft a plan containing the student’s strengths and needs.

Ryan Goodwin, a fictitious name used to protect his legally-required confidentiality, suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He was in a regular kindergarten class room with one teacher and 30 students. He couldn’t sit still and was frequently removed. Ryan’s mom, Jennifer (not her real name) approached the school about getting Ryan some help.

“But the school wasn’t listening to me,” she said.

Goodwin was referred to FosterEd by the Santa Cruz County Family and Children’s Services Division because she has an ongoing case with the agency due to issues with one of her other children.

FosterEd helped transfer Ryan to a special day class with only 15 students and three aides. It also helped Goodwin, along with educators and social workers, to establish a special education individualized education program to identify and accommodate Ryan’s unique needs.

“I’ve learned a lot about my rights,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without them [FosterEd].” “My child is happier and now the teacher tells him he’s a role model.”

According to a report on the local initiative’s first year, 116 foster youth were served and 123 educational champions were coached.

California already has a Foster Youth Services program under the California Department of Education, which provides grants to county offices of education for supporting foster youth. But that program doesn’t serve children placed with family members. And those youth account for about one third of the foster children in Santa Cruz.

Some of them live with grandma who may not speak English or know how to navigate the school system, said Denine Guy, assistant presiding judge of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court. And 30 percent of the local foster youth have special needs but many aren’t getting evaluated because caregivers aren’t familiar with that process, she said.

But it has been amazing to see the growth in caregivers’ abilities to support foster children with a little coaching from the right people, Guy said.

“We changed the culture collectively with FosterEd’s support,” she said.

“FosterEd has picked up the missing link of the family,” said Caroline Currie, a foster youth services education liaison for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. “It was never Foster Youth Services’ job to see if the caregivers had skills. We worked directly with the children,” she said.

What attracted FosterEd to Santa Cruz County was the collaboration that started in 2009 among the county’s superior court, its child welfare agency, the office of education and CASA, Schutte said. FosterEd launched the pilot project in 2012 funded by a $500,000 federal grant and foundation money.

“The ultimate goal is for the work of FosterEd to be absorbed and funded by existing local agencies.” Schutte said.

That’s already happened in Indiana, where FosterEd launched its first pilot project in 2011. In 2012 those FosterEd employees became employees of Indiana’s child welfare system. Now 16 education liaisons oversee 600 to 800 referrals per month in 92 counties, said Anita Silverman, education services director for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

School districts there are now receptive, but that wasn’t always the case, Silverman said. It took a while for them to get on board.

Santa Cruz County superintendents were more enthusiastic. All of them have signed a memorandum of understanding to continue the pilot which should wrap up in July of 2015. Then the program is expected to become embedded in local county agencies, said FosterEd Founder and Director Jesse Hahnel.

FosterEd also just started working with Los Angeles County and anticipates collaborating with several more California counties by the end of the year, he said. Arizona launched a pilot in January.

FosterEd creates state advisory boards as well. In California the state departments of education and social services, the administrative office of the courts and the attorney general’s office are working with FosterEd on efforts to improve services and increase funding for foster youth, Hahnel said.

Teacher Rebecca Bing at DeWitt Anderson School in Santa Cruz has seen FosterEd help one of her students who lives in a group home because both of her parents are dead.

FosterEd is experimenting with Goalbook — an online case management tool which is helping her educational team communicate and set goals, and has helped her be accountable.

“She knows she has a support group and she knows she’s being monitored,” Bing said. One of the student’s goals was to volunteer. So now she’s a hospital candy striper and has enrolled in a medical regional occupational program with aspirations of becoming a nurse.

Currie also works with high school students, some of whom have attended nine schools in four years due to different foster placements.

One youth she worked with in conjunction with FosterEd was living in a group home. FosterEd developed an educational team for the student and they focused on goals for high school graduation and preparing for college.

“It brought the hope that allowed this student to think big,” Currie said. “Most of the ones I work with just never think they’ll have a chance to go to college.”

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