Foster youth in the United States face an extraordinary amount of obstacles and often require additional support from the only place with access to responsible adults, their school. According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, 397, 122 children in the U.S. currently live in foster care without a permanent and stable home. As a result of frequent house changes, students often neglect their academic and educational careers. Statistics from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study found that nationally, only 58% of these foster youth graduate high school, compared to the national average of 84%. In California alone, less than 3% of foster youth continue their education to earn a college degree. Based on numbers provided by the Pupil Services Department at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the district educates approximately 8,278 foster children from early childhood education centers to high school.
Foster youth face roadblocks that make it challenging to succeed in school. They experience low scores on state mandated testing, low graduation rates, frequent absences, high suspension, and dropout rates.
To help improve the academic success of foster youth within LAUSD, the district implemented an initiative in 2014 called the Foster Youth Achievement Program. According to the mission statement, the district will work to “ensure that all LAUSD students are enrolled, attending, engaged and on-track to graduate.”
LAUSD officials have taken great strides to provide foster youth with better educational opportunities, including hiring more school counselors who specialize in foster children. Specifically, guidance counselor Araceli Gonzalez, has been assigned to Cleveland High School to work with Cavalier students. Gonzalez was unable to give exact numbers of the amount of foster youth at the “Land,” but she stated that Cleveland has an unusually high number of students living with relatives or in group homes.
Gonzalez describes herself as a case manager and advocate of the foster youth at Cleveland. As a counselor stationed at the school, her primary responsibility is monitoring attendance of the individual student with the end goal of obtaining a high school diploma. However, she acknowledges that working successfully with foster children can be a challenge. Gonzalez must cooperate with the student’s social worker, teachers, and representatives at the Department of Children and Family Services.
“It’s hard to get everyone on the same page,” she said.
Additional duties including communicating with the children presents a challenge. Due to their erratic upbringing, a number of the students developed trust issues and find it painful to open up to someone new, so Gonzalez always makes a point to “clarify her role” as a representative of LAUSD who wants to help them succeed academically.
Besides communication hurdles, foster youth are notorious for transferring schools every few months. Gonzalez recalled meeting students one week and then “they’re gone.”
In order to combat these obstacles, Gonzalez believes, “We need to work on school culture.” She argues that foster children often study without proper support from the school, especially teachers. Often times, teachers aren’t aware of a pupil’s home life and as a result, they do not have the same support system as other students. Adding to this point, Gonzalez feels that schools need to promote more awareness about foster youth, including acknowledging and promoting National Foster Care Month in May.
During the time of these difficulties, Gonzalez still feels that she has the ability to change the lives of her foster students.
“I want to do as much as I can before they leave,” she said.
Gonzalez remembers a student she counseled last year, who is now entering her sophomore year at Cal State, Northridge (CSUN). According to Gonzalez, she’s doing great and is actively participating in both an academic and athletic life.
Although the program launched last year, Gonzalez expresses confidence that the initiative will be successful and impact these students to help them continue their educational careers in college.