Riverside colleges want to create a college pipeline for foster youth

West Los Angeles College.
West Los Angeles College.
Susanica Tam for KPCC

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The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s office has awarded $2 million to community colleges in Riverside, Norco and Moreno Valley to turn around low college-going and high school graduation rates among foster youth.

"There have really been no coordinated services that usher foster youth through the secondary school system and transition them smoothly and seamlessly through higher education," said MaryAnn Doherty, director of grants for the three-campus Riverside Community College District.

Starting this summer, each of the three colleges plans to hire a specialist who will visit high schools in the Riverside area to help students enroll in and succeed in classes that will help them get into college. The specialist will work one-on-one with foster youth, starting in the 9th grade, to usher these students though the college application and financial aid process.

The colleges also plan to use some of the funds to provide foster youth with computers and phones, and to contract with technology companies that will create apps to help students meet deadlines.

The three Riverside community colleges enroll nearly 600 foster youth. 

"On average we’re seeing about one to two students who are foster youth who are graduating right now but that’s because we haven’t had the level of intervention that we needed to have," said Koji Uesugi, dean of Student Services at Norco College. About 150 foster students attend Norco.

According to the California Department of Education, there were 5,840 foster youth in Riverside County in the 2014-2015 school year; 461 of them were high school seniors. The number of foster youth in Los Angeles County is about four times higher.

There are more than 60,000 foster youth in California. They have the lowest high school graduation rate of any student group. And only about 3 percent go on to earn college degrees.

A court places a minor in foster care if the youth faces abuse or neglect with his biological parents or guardian.

"Many of foster youth, because of their under-preparedness at the K-12 system, come in and they get placed in the lower level English, math and reading courses," said Uesugi. "Because they have so far to go to get to the college level, students often give up."

Uesugi and others who help foster youth say the transition from high school to college is often too daunting because of all of the instability in these young people's lives.

"A lot of the foster youth, they want to go to a junior college locally first because they don’t want to leave the foster home, the group home, be away from their support system," said Samuel Herod, a Court Appointed Special Advocate who’s helped foster youth with school and legal proceedings since 2000.

He said a 12th grader in foster care who he’s helping now was admitted to a university in Northern California.

"She got accepted for a full ride but she doesn’t want to go," he said.