Shari Elizabeth Walker is a former foster care kid who applied to a community college at the age of 18 as “a hustle” to avoid being homeless. Up until six years ago, when foster youth turned 18, they were essentially kicked out of the foster care system and left to survive on their own.
As a result, statistics found that they were likely to be homeless, incarcerated, pregnant or addicted to drugs far more often than the average teen.
“A lot of my family went through the foster care system,” said the 25-year-old Walker. “At the age of 18, they just went back to hustling, drug dealing and sex trafficking. But I saw that school was basically paying money, when I started getting scholarships for writing. I thought, ‘if I go to a university, I can get even more money.’ That would be my hustle.”
But today, long after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the California Fostering Connections to Success Act (AB12) in 2010, which allowed foster youth to stay in the system until they turned 21, many of these young people are still falling through the educational cracks.
The Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) is determined to do something about it. Of the approximately 135,000 students in the district’s nine campuses, more than 2,500 of them are former foster kids. They are the self-identified ones, which means there are likely many more, speculates LACCD Trustee Sydney Kamlager.
While the district’s Guardian Scholars program is designed to be the gateway to success for foster students, their completion rate is below 10 percent said Trustee Kamlager. “I want to know why, and I want to get that number up.”
After all, LACCD Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez points out, “The LA Community College District is uniquely positioned to connect with underserved and hard-to-reach students, such as foster youth, to allow them to take advantage of our special programs and services and help them succeed academically. Education can change the arc of one’s life,” he added. “Our doors are wide open for these students eager for skills, knowledge and upward mobility.”
With that in mind, Kamlager, the author of a resolution calling for a district-wide effort to help previously incarcerated students succeed in school, plans to pen another “resolution with teeth.” It will focus on the district’s foster population, which is why she recently invited administrators along with current and former foster students to a roundtable discussion at The Right Way Foundation in Leimert Park.
Of the people who attended the event on Sunday, many were current or former fostercare students, and nearly all of them were African American. According to kidsdata.org, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, its most recent stats from 2014 reveal nearly 14,000 of California’s 62,000 children in foster care were Black. Walker was one of them.
She also said, her scholarship “hustle” eventually lost its appeal as a basic source of income. “I didn’t know how to budget. I spent money on the thing I never had, which was food. But eventually, I decided I wanted more of a future than just making money. I wanted to make a difference.”
Walker currently works for a non-profit organization. She is also starting her fourth non-consecutive year in order to get through a two-year community college program, and that is partly due to earlier difficulties finding housing.
“When you’re looking for a place to live [you can’t] focus on studying,” she told the group at the roundtable event. She applied for and was accepted into a transitional housing porgram, but points out that there remains a shortage of housing for former foster students in college. And there’s another shortfall: A lack of awareness about existing programs to help foster youth.
“I didn’t know about tutors,” Walker said. “I just thought all the other kids in class were smart. I didn’t know what was going on, so I stopped going” until she found a mentor. Eventually, the young woman whose vocabulary was boosted by her love of reading “went online, typed in ‘foster youth resources for college’ [and found] a plethora of information.
But that’s not what Kamlager wanted to hear. “It’s unacceptable that someone has to find out about these services by doing a Google search,” she said. “It’s really important for the district to reach out to our community-based organizations and service providers. These groups work with these kids every day, and it’s incumbent upon the district to connect with them.”
Actor Delroy Lindo, who grew up in the foster care system, was a featured guest at the roundtable discussion invited to the event by trustee Kamlager. Lindo, told the students, “I’m an actor who has been very successful and I say that to point out that I basically came from nothing.”
At the end of the evening, Lindo called the event as a promising success. “I have a lot of optimism because of the various people who were in the room, the work that they’re doing and the fact that they understand that these issues can be overwhelming.”
LACCD’s Deputy Chancellor Adriana Barrera admitted she left the panel feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the students’ stories. “Once they saw some success,” she said, “they encountered other obstacles. As a community college administrator, I learned that we’re probably not doing a good enough job helping to identify the students and support them. I came away with the feeling that this is an enormous problem, but I also felt it’s not insurmountable.”
Kamlager is also optimistic. “I feel hopeful,” she said. “I was humbled that the students were honest and shared their stories. It takes courage to do that. I have to honor that courage by going back to the district and finding ways to address the challenges they pointed out, and come back to this community and say, this is what we’ve done as a district. We have a little farther to go, so continue to help us.”