In Calif. Districts, Foster-Youth Program Helps Rescue ‘Throw-Away Students’

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 05, 1991 10 min read

Contra Costa County, Calif-- Under normal circumstances, Marcie Miller, vice principal of Olympic High School here, would have recommended that the transfer of a student who was returned to school by police after repeated truancy be revoked.

But when that happened recently to a youth living in a foster home, the Olympic student got a reprieve.

Teachers, tutors, social workers, and foster parents called together by a special advocate for foster children in the school system drew up a “contingency contract” offering the student extra support while defining the expectations that he would have to meet to stay at the school.

An underlying factor in the youth’s truancy, the group found, was his desire to return home.

“He thought if he messed up [in school], he could,” recalled Ms. Miller, noting that the contract helped motivate him to persevere.

“By the next week,” she said, “we had full 100 percent attendance.”

The student got a second chance through Foster Youth Services, a program operating in four California school districts that monitors the school progress of foster children referred by social workers, foster parents, schools, and probation officers. F.Y.S. offers tutoring starting in the early grades, “life skills” and employment-readiness training for students nearing adulthood, and counseling for foster children at all levels.

A key goal is to remove bureaucratic obstacles that thwart foster chi dren as they move from placement to placement and school to school by tracking academic and immunization records, identifying programs that fit their needs, and retrieving lost credits so they can graduate on time.

As in other parts of the country, the growing numbers of children entering foster care, at earlier ages, and their increasingly complex problems, are posing unique challenges to schools here.

One out of six children in foster care nationally lives in California, which leads the nation in the number of children in out-of-home care. In Contra Costa County, the number of children in out-of-home placements rose by 66 percent--from 1,032 to 1,709--from 1985 to 1989, and placements in family foster care alone are expected to increase at an annual rate of 13 percent between 1990 and 1995.

Ameliorating the living conditions that provoke the abuse and neglect often associated with foster L placement--and stabilizing the volatile living arrangements of foster children--are central goals of L child-welfare reform measures nationwide. (See story, page 1.)

But Foster Youth Services is unique, experts say, in addressing educational issues that place foster children at a greater risk of repeating grades or dropping out.

“They can come in at any point in the year, and we can negotiate with them and tell them they will get a tutor and some extra help to carry them along; that’s the leverage,” L said Richard Clarke, a guidance consultant with the Mount Diablo school district here and the coordinator of its F.Y.S. program.

A 1988 report by the California De partment of Education showed fys interventions helped students gain L an average of 3.2 months of academic progress per month of tutoring, and a 1989 study by a private foundation found that F.Y.S. students earned 10.1 credits more per semester than foster youths not in the program.

In a 1986 study by the California Health and Welfare Agency, 70 per cent of the seniors in the program graduated from high school, compared with only half of those in the general foster-youth population.

“The program has saved students who have come so close to dropping out and been retrieved,” Ms. Miller, Olympic High’s vice principal, said. “We’ve been able to graduate quite a few of them that were absolutely throw-away students.”

Foster Youth Services was launched as a demonstration project in 1972; the state legislature established it as an ongoing program in 1981. It has served more than 18,000 students to date.

Supported by fees the state collects from natural parents when children enter foster care, the pro gram is funded at $900,000 for the four districts involved: Elk Grove, San Juan, Sacramento City, and L Mount Diablo. The cost per student ranges from $400 to $850 a year.

Fys aims to give children who have been removed from their homes, primarily due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment, “a voice to advocate for their special needs,” a program brochure states.

At the core of the program are once- or twice-weekly sessions with F.Y.S. tutors who work with students individually or in small groups at school or in their foster homes.

“If they are behind academically, we work on bringing them back to grade level,” said Ivy Knott, an F.Y.S. teacher. But, she added, an overriding goal is to provide “a lot of individual nurturing.”

“Some days I spend talking more than tutoring,” said Gwen Morris, an F.Y.S. teacher who works with high-school students. “A lot of it is just giving reassurance.”

“I need a lot of help,” said one student who boasted that Ms. Morris helped him progress from D’s and F’s to C’s and B’s, forestalling a threat from a relative to change his placement.

“I could ask the [regular] teach er,” he added, “but I still wouldn’t get it.”

For students traumatized by past abuse and the trials of adjusting to foster care, said Judy Costelli, vice principal at the Rio Vista Elementary School in the Mount Diablo district, the program provides “someone stable and consistent to connect with. “These kids are so needy for atten tion and support--we can’t do it with a class of 31,” said Elaine Murphy, a 2nd-grade teacher there.

Without extra help, she said, many “would fall further behind academically, because behavioral problems would hinder their progess.”

On-site specialists also give teachers an alternative to “calling foster services and leaving a phone message for a social worker who’s never at [his or her] desk,” Ms. Murphy added. For older students, F.Y.S. staff members often use contracts like the one Ms. Miller described to set goals for behavior, classwork, or living independently. For students with a history of abuse, neglect, or delinquency, she aid, such goals offer “structure, consequences, and consistency.”

“Once a child is in high school, the main issue is not remediation, but adaption,” Mr. Clarke noted.

The program has made a “distinct difference” for foster students in districts served by the program, said Beverly Williams, a retired social worker who specializes in independent-living skills.

In districts without the services, many “just drop out,” she said. “It’s a painful comparison.”

Norma Sanders, a foster parent who helped arrange an intradistrict transfer so a youth in her care would have access to f.y.s., agreed that, without the one-on-one aid, he “would have probably dropped out.”

“It could have been a simple thing like algebra--one little step he didn’t get,” she said. “He won’t raise his hand, and [teachers] will just pass him by.”

While she reserves time to help her foster children with homework, observed Rudy Lopez, another foster parent, “sometimes I can’t help.”

Tom Blanks, another f.y.s. teacher, said the program provides essential “time and resources for going out and tracking records down.”

“A lot of young people we deal with have been moved from district to district and county to county,” noted Janet Knipe, coordinator of Contra Costa County’s Independent Living Skills Program for foster youths. “They come into a system that doesn’t have records or transcripts and are under a deadline to complete their education.”

Added Ms. Williams, “There may be no one in a school to call a high school in Florida, which may mean 50 credits and a chance to graduate.”

Mr. Blanks said he spends a day and a half a week tracking immunization records and transcripts and negotiating with schools to grant partial course credit--an uphill battle in many comprehensive high schools.

“It takes somebody who is going to be aware of some of these contingencies and can do some advocating on kids’ behalf,” he observed.

Often the advocacy extends beyond academics.

Mr. Clarke recounted how the program helped delay a student’s scheduled move to a new placement so she could celebrate the end of the school term with friends.

And Ms. Morris recalled how she helped arrange reimbursement for a child to bring a valued pet rabbit with him on the plane when he moved.

With older students, she described how she had intervened in situations ranging from talking an unwed teenager out of getting pregnant to helping a youth back out of a contract with a merchant for an expensive item of jewelry. “I consider Gwen a great friend--I would open up to her anytime,” said Jennifer McMillan, a high-school senior who was helped by Ms. Morris to catch up after attending four different schools her freshman year.

Children with behavioral problems in the classroom receive counseling every other week from a social worker who engages them in discussion and games and offers encouragement. Besides individual counseling, the social worker runs support groups for foster youths and consults with tutors, L teachers, administrators, foster parents, and social-services workers involved with the child.

In the Mount Diablo district, Robert Ayasse, a casework specialist L with the Contra Costa County Department of Social Services, is employed half-time by the district.

As a liaison between his agency and the schools, Mr. Ayasse said he is able to “do advocacy work when a special problem comes up” and mediate between the two systems--a role that has posed challenges.”

“It’s taken a lot of work to figure out where I fit--I have felt like a worker with no turf trying to carve out a niche,” he said.

But observers say the arrangement has benefited both systems.

“Without this program, we’re so L limited when we try to contact school people,” said Shahla Akbarinejad, a county social worker with a caseload of 60. Without it, she added, “it would have been extremely hard to keep track of our kids’ needs.”

Suzanne Strisower, a counselor at the Cherry Lane Group Home, a private foster home, said homes not L served by f.y.s. “don’t know the individual workings of schools, discipline procedures, or how to manipulate the system,” which can mean “undue suspensions, grades lost, and no one to go to bat” for foster children.

“My job as a counselor is to help make their daily lives function--not to be an expert in education,” she added. “I’m not sophisticated in education, nor am I an effective tutor, as much as my heart is in the right place.”

In a poor area already “taxed to the limit” by budget cuts and multi-problem families, added Helen Williamson, principal of the Holbrook Elementary School, “many children would be on a waiting list if they had wait for our own psychologist.”

Mr. Clarke, who serves on a statewide commission studying child-welfare reform, said F.Y.S. could serve as a model for “making strong interagency links.”

“Knowing about the woes of the foster-care system has allowed our program to be active in developing his district recently received a state grant for a summer program offering educational enrichment for fo ter children living with relatives.”

Although the state’s fiscal crisis has cast a pall over new spending and intensified competition for funds, Mr. Clarke is also optimistic about a proposal by Gov. Pete Wilson to expand F.Y.S. to two more districts.

In the Mount Diablo district, bud get cuts have already eliminated L high-school guidance counselors, making the role of f.y.s. even more critical, program staffers note.

F.y.s. personnel are also troubled by the dearth of services outside the program for foster children who need more intensive counseling. The state’s MediCal program only provides funds for two sessions a month, and slots are limited.

“I can manage my time and figure out what to do, but when I can identify a problem ... and there is (no service to send them to, that’s) my biggest frustration,” Mr. Ayasse said.

Educators also feel helpless when children who have begun to get established at a school move to placements beyond the program’s reach.

“The hard part is letting them go,” Ms. Costelli of the Rio Vista school said. “We don’t know what happens after--we have no control.”

“Sometimes a kid just gets picked up 4th period and is gone,” Mr. Clarke added.

“To the extent [F.Y.S. workers] are prepared for a change, they can anticipate it and begin to do some work : around separation,” he said, and some try to ease the transition by maintaining correspondences.

But Mr. Clarke is optimistic that F.Y.S. experience will prove valuable, even if it is cut short.

“Hopefully,” he said, “it will trigger something positive in their memory.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as In Calif. Districts, Foster-Youth Program Helps Rescue ‘Throw-Away Students’