The odds were stacked against Cookieey Ropati when she started high school four years ago.
As a foster child, she had a less-than-50-percent chance of graduating from high school and a less-than-3-percent chance of going to college.
But with substantial help and support from a strong foster youth services program, Ropati graduated in June from Olympic High School in Concord. She is headed to Los Medanos College in Pittsburg in the fall.
"It's important that we keep those services because if we didn't, most of us foster youth wouldn't make it through high school or graduate," said Ropati, 18, who now lives in Antioch. "It's very difficult for foster youth to go to school and have to think about where they're going to stay, what they're going to eat and who they can talk to to get things done."
Ropati was part of a group of Bay Area advocates who lobbied Sacramento legislators to keep "categorical" funding set aside for foster youth services intact and to add accountability measures to school funding to force districts throughout the state to track the academic progress of foster kids. As part of the Local Control Funding Formula signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, school districts must adopt plans by next year showing how they intend to spend extra money earmarked to help low-income students, English learners and foster youth.
But just how much more districts will allocate for schools to serve foster youths, and what Sacramento will expect in return, hasn't been determined.
The prospect of more funding to help needy students "is always positive," said Juan Cruz, assistant superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. But he added, "When there's money that's earmarked like that, we know there are going to be some requirements."
Already state law allows foster youth to earn partial credit when having to transfer schools, relaxed graduation requirements and help in enrolling in new schools.
"We advocate for them," said Sonja House, who oversees education services for foster and homeless youth, at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. With its counterparts in other counties, the county office provides services like tutoring, placement and assistance with student records.
"California has just become the first state to really acknowledge that foster children require special attention when it comes to education, and to hold districts and schools accountable for their performance," said Jesse Hahnel, founder and director of FosterEd, a national initiative focused on helping foster youth throughout the country succeed in school by pushing for stronger laws and policies. "We're hoping this becomes a national model."
Foster youth typically do significantly worse in school than other at-risk students, Hahnel said. Studies show that 75 percent of foster youth perform below grade level, 80 percent have repeated a grade by third grade, half don't obtain high school diplomas or the equivalent and more than 97 percent fail to go on to college.
"Here in California, we have some really powerful new legislation, but the proof will be in the implementation," Hahnel said. "We're working with the California Department of Education and the State Board of Education to help draft model plans or templates that school districts can modify or adapt that at least give ideas for the types of services or programs foster youth need."
Ropati said members of her district support team have become like her family.
"It takes a village to raise a child," she said. "This is my village, and I'm their child."
Bay Area foster youth by county:
Contra Costa: 955
San Francisco: 951
San Mateo: 291
Santa Clara: 957
Total Bay Area foster youth: 5,508
Total foster youth in California: approximately 55,000
Total foster youth
in the United States:
Information about foster youth services in the United States is available at www.foster-ed.org. Details about foster youth in California are available by going to http://fosteredconnect.org. More information about the
Mt. Diablo school district's
foster youth services is available at www.mdusd.k12.ca.us/schoollinkedservices. Click on Foster Youth Services.