One group of California students will be greatly underrepresented during high school graduation ceremonies around the state during the next few weeks.
Less than 50 percent of students in foster care earn a high school diploma, leaving them few opportunities for jobs that pay a living wage.
However, a program in Elk Grove Unified School District in the Sacramento area is improving the odds for foster youth.
One student who benefited from the program, an 18-year-old we’re calling Sarah to protect her identity, just graduated from Elk Grove’s Monterey Trail High School.
Sarah has been in foster care on and off since she was 4, and figures she’s attended at least one school a year during that time. She never expected to make it out of high school.
“I didn’t want to go to school. I was cutting school,” Sarah said. “My grades were really, really low. I just wanted to ditch school and hang out with my friends, boyfriend, you know, be the wild child basically.”
She was admittedly a bit out of control back then. It didn’t take much to push her buttons and she got into a lot of fights at school. Her foster mom moved to get Sarah out of that high school and told her, “You’re not going back.”
Slim with light brown hair, Sarah is soft-spoken, but with a raw, sad quality about her. She said she and her brothers and sisters were removed from their home due to physical and emotional abuse. She was separated from her siblings and felt angry and alone.
Her grief started to lift when she arrived at Monterey Trail. There, Sarah found a community of other students just like her in a life skills class for foster youth taught by Mike Jones.
Once a week, about 20 foster youth in grades 9 through 12 meet with him to learn study skills, start developing a plan for success after high school and talk about whatever is on their mind in a safe, nonjudgmental place.
“Once I got here I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone, these are people who are in the same situation as me,’ ” Sarah said. “So it made me feel good that I had someone to talk to if I needed to. We could all support each other in a time of need.”
On one sunny spring day, as Jones took his familiar place leaning on a low bookshelf in the school library, the mood in the class was upbeat. The school year was almost over and, for the seniors, there was some good news on the college front. One student had just received two acceptances, including one to Notre Dame.
“That’s a very prestigious school,” Jones told her as the other students congratulated her.
Then Jones moved to other matters. On an upcoming weekend they were planning a “stupid fun day” for all the foster youth from area schools. “It’s just going to be kind of an excuse to barbecue, have some fun, get away from your placements and your houses, and just do something kind of silly,” he said.
Jones already had piloted the foster youth class in another Elk Grove high school -- where it was the first of its kind in the state. They are now at five schools in the district.
He had overseen discipline at his other school, and noticed that many of the students who had been repeatedly referred to his in-school suspension class were foster youth who, like Sarah, had a lot going on in their lives and no place to share it.
“A kid doesn’t wear a sign that says, ‘I’m in foster care, I don’t have family or something’s wrong,’ ” Jones said. By meeting with them every week, he can see when something’s up and intervene, find out what’s going on and how he can help.
“When we see some of our foster youth and we know last week you were great, this week something’s up, we know something happened outside and that student needs to be sat down and vent,” he said.
There are about 500 foster youth in Elk Grove Unified’s 64 schools, more than in most districts. Statewide, there are nearly 60,000 foster youth, and they often struggle academically. By 11th grade, nearly half of foster youth drop out. That’s twice as high as other students.
Given their instability, Jones said, it’s not surprising.
“It’s hard to care about algebra or biology or English when you’re not really sure where your head is going to be in five days,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to be sleeping in your bed, or a group home bed, or some strange place.”
Along with the big challenges, the class also addresses the small ones, with tangible support that allows foster youth to participate in all aspects of school. Jones makes sure that students who can’t afford it can still get yearbooks, student activity cards, backpacks, shampoo, and even prom tickets and prom clothes.
The district won’t know for a few months how successful the classes are. But at the school that piloted the program, foster students earn better grades and have fewer discipline problems and higher attendance rates.
At Monterey Trail High School, all five seniors in the class made it to graduation, Jones said.
Sarah said the program changed her attitude and her goals.
“I don’t want what happened to me to define my future. I don’t want to be that girl I used to be,” she said. “I just want to make my siblings proud, I want to make myself proud. I want to make my grandma and my grandpa proud.”
Sarah now has a 3.0 grade-point average, and after graduation plans to attend community college and then transfer to a well regarded medical assistant program at an East Coast university.