Shuffled from home to home and school to school, often with no one to turn to for guidance and support, foster youth can end up feeling isolated, alienated and without purpose. A simple but effective program at Elk Grove Unified is helping to restore a sense of normalcy and stability to the lives of foster students, allowing them to connect to their school and community.
The brainchild of district resource teacher Mike Jones, the program brings together all the foster youth at a high school for a weekly “advocacy” class where the students can support each other and develop a feeling of family and a desire to succeed.
On one spring morning at the advocacy class at Monterey Trail High School, Jones leaned on a bookcase, relaxed and joking with the students. He started the class by asking one boy, “What’s your waist size?” The boy didn’t know. “How tall are you? What’s your pants size?”
Jones was sizing up the youth so he could find the right tuxedo for him to wear to the senior ball. He then asked for a show of hands of the girls who needed their hair and nails done – provided for free by community volunteers. It seemed like almost every senior and some younger students were planning to go to the dance, with some students in the class going with each other, emphasizing how tight-knit the group has become.
One measure of success for Jones is that normalcy – how many kids will go to the prom or sporting events or participate in other after-school activities.
“Since the advocacy program began, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in extracurricular participation, wanting to be part of the school, part of the community,” Jones said.
That fear, that constant knowledge that at any given moment everything that they’ve tried to build up for themselves could be ripped away – that plays heavily into how a kid acts at school.” – Mike Jones, Elk Grove Unified Resource Teacher
Often foster youth change homes and schools far too frequently, Jones said. “Students can end up in five or ten different schools by the time they’re in seventh grade. That mobility plays into low graduation rates, low grade point averages, and higher expulsions and suspensions.”
Nationally, only 45 percent of children in foster care graduate from high school, according to a 2012 report by the California Department of Education.
“That fear, that constant knowledge that at any given moment everything that they’ve tried to build up for themselves could be ripped away – that plays heavily into how a kid acts at school,” Jones said. “For this population, a lot of times it’s easier to give up than deal with one more disappointment.”
Ella, an outgoing, confident 18-year-old, is a prime example of the impact the program can have on students. She entered foster care at age 5 because, she said, her younger sister was born addicted to drugs, and the children were taken away from their parents. (By law and for their own protection, foster students cannot give their full names unless they are 18 or over and are emancipated – legally responsible for themselves.)
Although at first she didn’t take the advocacy class seriously, Ella, now in her senior year at Monterey Trail, has become a role model for the other foster students. She has joined California Youth Connection, which writes and promotes legislation to aid foster youth. She has given speeches on foster youth issues and has lobbied legislators in Sacramento.
“I never thought I would make it this far,” she said. “I’ve grown through this advocacy with Mike Jones.”
Jones started the program at Laguna Creek High School five years ago. Now in five of Elk Grove’s nine comprehensive high schools, the advocacy class gives foster students a chance to build friendships and discuss issues that are unique to them. A teacher or administrator who acts as the school’s foster youth adviser leads the class and also makes sure students have what they need to fully participate in high school: Do students have formal clothes for the prom, for instance, or student activity cards for high school athletic events, which foster children are often unable to afford.
“If we need something, they’re always there,” one freshman at Monterey Trail said about the adults involved in the advocacy class, such as Jones, the principal, the vice principal and the librarian, who brings homemade cookies once a month for the kids.
“A lot of people, they’ll judge you,” he said. “But in here, they understand what you’re going through.”
What they have gone through is often difficult to hear.
A slight, shy teenage girl says she ended up in foster care after she turned in her stepfather for sexually abusing her and her younger sister even though he had threatened to kill her if she reported him.
“My sister was so young. She was only six years old,” she said, pausing to gain control of her feelings. “I couldn’t protect myself, and I couldn’t protect her and my brother. I was eating myself up, blaming myself because I couldn’t protect them.”
The stepfather is in prison, and she was separated from her siblings, the girl said. Struggling with the loss of her family, the teenager began to act out and constantly got into fights with other students at her last high school.
Her foster mother applied for her to transfer to Monterey Trail. “Once I got here I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone,’” she said. “So it made me feel good that I had someone to talk to if I needed to.” The girl now has a 3.0 GPA and plans to study medical assisting in college.
“I don’t want what happened to me to define my future,” she said. “I don’t want to be that girl I used to be. I want to make my siblings proud. I want to make myself proud.”
Providing a stable environment
Jones works with the youth and their social workers to ensure students can stay in their school, which is their legal right, even if their foster family moves or changes.
“Knowing the transience of the population, I really want to keep the freshmen here for four years,” said David Byrd, principal of Monterey Trail. “If they are here longer and we can provide some stability, they have a shot at college, career and beyond.”
Unlike many other districts, Elk Grove has been proactive in its efforts to identify and track its students in foster care. Many districts have no idea how many foster children they have, and are even less aware of how well they are doing. Of the state’s 6.2 million students, only about 42,000 are in foster care, making up a small percentage of students in any one district. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal, if passed, would for the first time require districts to keep track of the academic performance of students in foster care, and would hold schools accountable for their progress. Districts might well look to Elk Grove for inspiration.
Since introducing the foster advocacy classes and making efforts to work more closely with foster kids’ social workers and attorneys, Elk Grove “has cut our suspensions of foster youth exponentially,” Jones said.
Located in southern Sacramento County, Elk Grove serves more than 62,000 students, including about 500 foster children each year. In 2009-10, the district issued suspensions to 1,504 foster youth, an average of about three suspensions for each foster child. (Students who are suspended multiple times are counted as multiple suspensions.) After instituting the foster advocacy classes and the other measures, the number of suspensions fell to 464 in 2010-11 – a 69 percent plunge. The decrease has continued, with 362 suspensions in 2011-12.
Principal Byrd said the program was easy to implement in his school because there already was a half hour each Thursday set aside for advocacy classes for all students. Elk Grove high school students attend advocacy class by grade level, so they can learn what they need to know during each year of high school, such as how to write college essays for juniors.
The foster advocacy class includes all grade levels. Foster students can join if they want, but they can also go to their regular advocacy class. The vast majority choose the foster advocacy class.
The older students help the younger ones, who also witness what foster youth must do when they become emancipated. They can see that doing well in school will give them more possibilities, Jones said.
The class “builds within the kids a level of self-respect and self-confidence,” he said. “They can sit down every week and know that they have this family.”
A special report on this program by EdSource Today senior reporter Kathryn Baron was featured on The California Report on KQED.