Above: Sabrina Abong shows off her high school diploma after graduating from Los Banos High School. A former foster youth, Abong now attends Merced Community College and works as an advocate with California Youth Connection.
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — Foster youth and community allies are asking local school officials to prioritize state-issued equity funds and increase campus resources for some of Merced’s most vulnerable children.
Schools play a huge role in the lives of foster youth, often creating the only point of stability in their life, said Sabrina Abong, a former foster youth living in Merced County.
“At my second high school, I really liked it there. I actually felt safe there,” she said. “I could tell they were trying to help foster youth, trying to help kids who weren’t from the area.”
Originally from Winton, a town of just over 10,000 residents about 10 miles west of Merced, Abong entered into foster care at age 14, moving around to several different high schools and foster families between Santa Clara and Merced counties before eventually transitioning out of the system at 18.
Now aged 20, she has come back to the Merced area to be closer to younger siblings and serve as a voice for current foster youth. Abong is studying behavioral psychology at Merced Community College and is involved in California Youth Connection (CYC), a statewide advocacy group led by current and former foster youth.
“I’m OK now because I have a future. I survived, but others are still in the process and I want to advocate for them,” she said.
During her years in the foster care system, Abong said teachers, administrators and resources at the multiple high schools she attended had a huge impact on her life, at times making her feel better or worse about her situation.
So when she learned that Merced-area districts were receiving millions of dollars in state funding each year intended specifically for foster youth and other high-need students, Abong said she took immediate interest in where the money was being directed.
“Right now, I’m learning that those equity-based dollars aren’t going exactly where you would want them to go,” Abong said. “Learning that made me really upset because I was like, ‘hey, you’re getting this money for a reason.’”
Underspending on equity
Each year, California school districts are issued state dollars as part of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Under LCFF, districts receive a base amount of funding per-pupil, as well as supplemental dollars on top of the base amount for high-need students – defined as being foster youth, low-income and English language learners.
Districts with concentrations of high need students also receive additional dollars on top of the supplemental funds. For Merced County schools — where nearly 80 percent of all students qualify for the state’s low-income based free and reduced lunch program — this often means tens of millions of extra dollars each school year.
These equity-based funds are intended to be used specifically for resources aimed at supporting high-need student populations. Local advocates, however, say that hasn’t been the case in Merced.
Hector Cerda is the regional coordinator for CYC. “[Districts] should be using those funds to meet the needs of foster youth,” he said, adding district spending plans, known as Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP), do not reflect that.
Districts are required to make public their annual LCAPs, which document how LCFF money will be used to address the specific needs of high-priority students. This year, Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) reported receiving more than $15 million in equity-based funding between its 10 campuses, but its LCAP only shows $5,000 set aside for the district’s 93 foster youth specifically.
The LCAP is often just a starting place however, and Norma Cardona, program manager for homeless and foster youth at MUHSD, said the district wound up spending an additional $41,000 on foster youth resources this school year.
The money is going towards a tutoring service for foster youth and will cover startup costs for several new programs her department is looking to introduce.
Advocates like Abong and Cerda say that’s still just a drop in the bucket, however and point to LCAP line-items that show hundreds of thousands of LCFF dollars going to staff salaries or use for all students district-wide.
Oftentimes that salary money is going towards the creation of new positions, and Cardona said a portion of the district’s LCFF money is used to create on-campus foster youth advocates and train teachers on foster youth issues.
A network of support
MUHSD’s LCAP has a stated goal of using equity-based dollars to establish a comprehensive network of support both across the district and at each specific school-site, however all its LCFF money is categorized as being used district-wide.
Each high school has at least a few foster youth, but Cardona said El Capitan and Merced High School have the largest foster youth populations, with 19 and 30 respectively.
“Since those schools have more foster youth, we’re working with CYC to see about bringing them on-campus for monthly meetings with students,” she said. “While at other schools with a smaller population of foster youth, it may be more appropriate to just have one staff member there as a foster youth advocate.’
On-campus resources are often favored by foster youth since it means less time spent missing class, thereby minimizing the feeling of distinction between them and other students, said Cerda.
“A lot of kids want to stay at their schools. So if school districts created things on their campus or partnered with others, they could start to really meet the need,” he said. “That way [students] don’t have to travel far or miss activities, they can just stay put in a familiar place and receive resources directly.”
Abong agreed and said she frequently took advantage of the “secure zone” set up for foster youth during her time at Los Banos High School.
“Simply, if you felt like you couldn’t deal with anything going on around you, you couldn’t handle anything, you could go into a certain room there. They actually had those where you could talk to a person and they would be like, ‘What’s going on? What can we do’,” she said.
Such rooms are relatively uncommon in her experience, but Abong said the supportive and understanding environment offered are extremely important for foster youth.
“If you’re a foster kid, you want to give up on life because we have been through so many traumatic events compared to regular kids. But it’s hard to show it and a lot of other kids don’t understand,” she said.
Having administrators and teachers properly trained on foster youth issues can also go a long way, and Cardona said her department is hoping to increase the number of training opportunities available to teachers and staff within the district.
Staff within the Merced County Office of Education’s Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program (FYSCP) share a similar goal, but on a county-wide scale.
FYSCP serves as an umbrella of foster youth services, coordinating across various county and school agencies to help advocate for the more than 400 school-aged foster youth in Merced County. But, staff say there’s simply not enough manpower to meet the individual needs of every student.
For that they must rely on the individual school districts. While the department can offer support and advice on how districts may address foster youth needs through LCFF, ultimately they do not have a say in the LCAPs, said Daphne Post, coordinator with FYSCP.
“MCOE is here to assist all [local educational agencies] with development and implementation of foster youth plans for LCAP, but the districts don’t have to answer to us,” she said.
Instead, FYSCP focuses its limited manpower on case management and coordination services for foster youth students in special education or alternative schools. These students represent the highest-priority for FYSCP since they are in danger of not graduating, Post said.
Foster youth are already far less likely than their public school peers to graduate from high school, with a 2015 study by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd placing the graduation rate at just over 50 percent.
To help ensure no one’s slipping through the cracks FYSCP has created a foster youth services coordinating council in recent years, which includes representatives from elementary through high school, as well as social workers and mental health representatives. The council aims to better coordinate county-wide efforts and address large-scale issues foster youth may face in schools.
Cardona has created a similar group at MUHSD. The quarterly roundtables began last school year and include foster youth, advocates, social workers, foster parents and school counselors all working to identify and address issues specific to students.
“It’s about identifying barriers for foster students and helping bring together different groups to help solve the issues,” she said.
While such cross-sector discussions are important, Cerda says district officials should also be working to ensure foster youth can find success after high school.
“It means expanding their curriculum, hiring more teachers, doing whatever is needed to help,” he said. “School districts should have the wherewithal and the smarts and the integrity to give [foster youth] something to prepare them for college, so they can be accepted rather than turned away.”
Addressing the low graduation rate is a good first step, but Cerda said those who do pass high school often still need some support from the state as they transition into adulthood. That goal is supported statewide by California Assembly Bill 12, which provides extended foster care services up to age 21.
Enacted in 2010, the bill requires youth in the program to either be enrolled in college or employed, meaning there’s more at stake for many foster students than simply walking across a high school graduation stage, Cerda said.
“Not many kids are ready to live completely on their own at age 18,” he said.
Cardona agreed and said that while MUHSD is using LCFF money to fill the gap for foster youth, there is still more that can be done at the high school-level.
“The program is not as robust as it needs to be in order to serve all the needs of foster youth, but I’m hoping we can get there somewhere in the future,” she said. “These are our most at-risk students. My hope is that sooner rather than later we can address these needs.”