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How educators can help homeless and foster youth overcome instability

A team of local educators has won a $10 million grant to start a school serving foster and homeless youth in Los Angeles.

The money comes from Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, as part of a competition she funded, "XQ: The Super School Project."

The school, called RISE, will launch with the aim of helping a population that is often challenged with the instability of frequent moves.

Take Two’s Deepa Fernandes spoke with Shari Walker, a former foster youth, to understand more about the obstacles this group faces in the school system. Walker spent part of her childhood in foster care and now helps others navigate the foster care system. 


The biggest challenge to a foster youth’s education: instability

One of the biggest problems is that foster youth move around to so many homes that they end up going to so many different schools, so there’s no real stability. They aren’t able to build solid relationships, so school becomes less and less of a priority at each move.

Even if you get a connection with a really great teacher, when you’re moved the next week or even within a few days from when you first started school, it can be very difficult. So, many foster youth get to the point when they don’t want to build relationships with teachers, even if they’re going to stay for a few months. They’re thinking, "I’m just going to leave again, so what’s the point in building a relationship with this adult when they’re going to leave me like most of the schools have?"

On whether teachers receive training to teach kids in the foster care system

I would say for the most part, absolutely not, they don’t have training in that. Myself and one of my mentor’s, we went out to a school and we spoke to the teachers. They were confused as to how to deal with the kids in the classroom, because again, many of the moves and many of the home transitions, the child’s behavior can sometimes be abrupt. They can sometimes be loud and sometimes be dysfunctional in the classroom, so teachers are trying to figure out how do we deal with such students, and if the students only stay for a little while, how can we make an impact?

I think it’s absolutely important that teachers do get training about how to deal with foster youth. Even if they’re in their classroom for one day or one week, they should be able to find some connection with that youth to instill in them that they are worthy and capable and they can do the work.

Creating stability through relationships

The main thing with the kids who have behavioral problems and move around a ton is that these kids need relationships, and they need mentors. Mentors are something so vital to these children within the foster care system, because no matter if you have a brilliant school who will go wherever they go and a satellite school — I think that’s absolutely amazing — but if these kids don’t have mentors, they don’t have those relationships, so that when they are feeling terrible on the inside, or they’re just feeling like, what’s the point of school when all this stuff has happened to me… or is happening to me. It can be very hard regardless of how many resources you give them if they don’t have those relationships. So, I think it’s up to both the schools and DCFC [Department of Children and Family Services] to provide mentors who have been through the foster care system — former foster youth who will be able to relate to them and be able to talk to them about education.

How can you tell a child education is important when they’re suffering abuse at home. How can you tell a child education is important when you’ve moved them 15 times within one semester. How can you say such a thing? It doesn’t make sense. Kids can’t fathom what you’re talking about, but if you have mentors who are able to get inside of the child’s life and really connect to the child on, "I know things are going on on the outside, but we are going to focus and we are also going to figure out the stuff that’s going on in the inside and outside." I think that will be vital.

*Interview edited for clarity

To hear the full interview, click the blue arrow above.