Helping Foster Youth Succeed

Letitia L. Star
July 25, 2004

Helping Foster Youth SucceedKatherine Lemmons is full of enthusiasm -- not only for her new life as a college freshman at National-Louis University, but for the unique alternative educational program in Chicago that made it all possible. Lemmons left school at age 15, but three years ago, at the age of 17, she re-enrolled in Jobs For Youth/Chicago, Inc., one of the 15 small alternative community schools of the Youth Skills Development and Training Program (YSDTP).

The caring educational environment helped Lemmons, now 20, pass her GED last April and reconnect with her dreams. Lemmons, who lives with her 3-year-old daughter in a group home, wants to work with adolescents and young adults. She also has political ambitions. She plans to major in political science and eventually run for office.

"It's a very good program. Here everyone is a winner," she comments. "I received a lot of support on every level, including mentally and socially, that helped build self esteem. I am at peace with myself and I love what I'm doing.

"It's hard being a ward of the state. This program helped me put all my problems aside, get my priorities straight and work hard," she adds.

A Nationwide Challenge
Helping foster youth grow up to become employable adults is a critical challenge throughout the nation, not just in Chicago. There are currently half a million children in the foster care system in the United States. Many foster kids have special needs, and are at a higher risk for developing behavior and mental health problems, as well as problems in school, according to The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care.

Many young adults struggling to make the transition from foster care to independent adult lives face bleak employment prospects. According to the Kids Count 2004 Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, only half of the young adults who left foster care were regularly employed two to four years later.

Second Chances in the Second City
The 370 students enrolled in YSDTP, a program of the Alternative Schools Network of Chicago in partnership with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, have an opportunity to overcome those odds thanks to the comprehensive nature of the program.

Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, says all of the students in the Youth Skills program are under the care of the child welfare system. "Most had to leave their families due to abuse or neglect," says Wuest. "They are currently living in a foster or group home, with a relative, or on their own in independent living."

Students' ages range from 16 to 21; the average age is 19. Sixty percent are female; 90% are black, 8% Hispanic and 2% white. Fifteen percent are classified as having special education needs. "Illinois is a leader in allowing foster youth to remain under DCFS care up to age 23 if they are going to school. Without this policy our program wouldn't be possible. Many states terminate foster care at age 18," says Wuest.

Older students who drop out while in foster care often can't go back to school in the same grade as their peers because they have fallen so far behind. "On average our students have been out of school for at least eight months and are usually six years behind in reading and math," says Wuest. "So a 19-year-old student is reading at a seventh grade level."

"Forty percent of our students are parents," he adds. "We've recently added 60 additional slots for teen parents."

"It would have been extremely difficult for me to finish high school while living with my child in a group home," comments Lemmons. "Child care isn't provided in a regular high school, but here it's OK to bring your child to school if you can't find a sitter. This is a good environment where they accept you and everything that comes with you."

An All-Encompassing Approach
"What's unique about YSDTP is that it's possibly the first program for foster youth that's all-encompassing," says Wuest. "To the best of my knowledge, there aren't other programs that are doing this, although some may have the same basic elements such as job training and placement.

"We not only provide education, but important learning and life skills such as money management. We also address the social and cultural needs of students, including a big prom at the Palmer House Hilton, a basketball tournament and a whole range of activities," he comments. "We get foster kids back into small alternative schools that use the 24/7 approach involving foster parents, teachers, mentors and DCFS workers."

After graduating, most students either enter the workforce or the military, or pursue post-secondary education. Through YSDTP, those who continue on to college or vocational training programs receive scholarships and laptop computers.

Test Case
"YSDTP is a test case," says Wuest. "It's a program that works successfully and should be seriously considered across the country."

The program offers students a rich range of resources and opportunities to help them meet their educational goals.

Patrice Whittington, who recently finished her first semester at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, says that the Jobs for Youth/Chicago program helped her get her life back on track and pursue her ambition to become a pediatric surgical nurse. She dropped out of school in February 2003 because living with relatives made it difficult to attend. Still under foster care, she was able to get her own apartment and enroll in Jobs for Youth/Chicago the following August. "The program helped me get my GED by the end of year," she says. "I currently work for Jobs for Youth/Chicago as a GED tutor and administrative assistant."

The nuts-and-bolts components are: a year-round academic program, a computer-based, individualized, self-paced learning system called Extra, an after-school enrichment program, full-time school-based mentors and a student savings and scholarship program.

Year-Round Academic Program
Students can quickly advance academically because of small class sizes, an individualized education program and self-paced computer-based assisted instruction. "We work with students in a close and personal way to help them learn work-related skills, including discipline and structure, so they can get their diplomas and go to college," says Wuest.

After School
The after-school enrichment program is designed to teach life and employment skills through after-school tutoring as well as structured social and cultural activities. "The learning center is critical because students have all different levels of learning skills," Wuest comments.

"We went to a play and a nice restaurant, things that kids who aren't fortunate never get to do," says Lemmons. "Many of our outside activities have an educational component. They have opened up my whole horizon of the world. For example, we went to the State Capitol in Springfield and got to sit in the House of Representatives."

As part of an intensive retention and support program, each student is assigned a full-time, paid school-based mentor. These professionals work one-on-one with students and provide coordination with DCFS case workers and service providers. "The mentors carry cell phones and if the kids aren't in school they are immediately notified," said Wuest.

Mentors also provide graduation and transition services, and coordinate community-based resources. "Mentors remove obstacles to students graduating and navigate them toward college and vocational training," says Michelle Morales, YSDTP manager.

Building Savings
"Students get paid $2 pocket money for attending the after-school program," says Wuest. "When they complete a course they get $50 in pocket and $200 scholarship money. All graduates receive $250 for new clothes."

Each student opens a LaSalle Bank ATM and savings accounts. Those who don't attend school during the summer receive valuable work experience through summer jobs.

"When students graduate, they each receive $600 scholarship money to pay for college or training," says Wuest. "It's not unusual for students to have saved $1,800. They don't have access to that money until they go to college or training with an agreed upon spending plan."

Success Rate
Sixty-five percent of all students either graduate, become employed, transfer to another school or remain enrolled. Students move up an average of two grade levels every year. "This year 69 students are graduating. That's 50 percent more graduates than last year," comments Wuest. "Eighty-three percent who are seniors graduate. Of those, 80% go on to college, training or jobs."

"Our next step is to add a program that will track and support the progress of students after they graduate," he adds.

Lemmons, who is now a peer mentor, credits YSDTP for changing her whole attitude toward life. "You want to succeed and help people," she says. "I encourage other students. When they see me they become confident that they too can get their GEDs."

Letitia L. Star is a freelance writer based in Evanston, IL.


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Is this the same work program I saw on TV here in San Francisco news? I&;ed like to pass this idea on to our city, if it is.