With about 640 children in foster care enrolled in its schools in 2015-2016 and an average of 400 in classrooms at any point in time, the Pasadena Unified School District is transforming the way it serves foster youth. Foster youth are children living temporarily in the care of adults other than their birth parents who, for a variety reasons, are unable to care for them.
Nearly half a million children in the U.S. live in foster care while their families work to overcome addiction to drugs or alcohol, illness, financial hardship, or other problems, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children in foster care live in a variety of placement settings and may move several times among or between settings while in care. For example, a child may move from a group home to a relative’s foster home. Foster care settings include non-relative foster family homes, relative foster homes (whether payments are being made or not), group homes, emergency shelters, residential facilities, and pre-adoptive homes.
To support students in foster care, Pasadena Unified has opened foster youth centers at two campuses, hired a full-time foster youth liaison, established the Foster Youth Guardians/Parents and Advocates Council (FYGPAC), and is training district teachers and staff on trauma-informed care. Trauma informed care is an approach that recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in students and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.
“We’re shifting our practices and approach in both classroom management and the way every staff member interacts with students to ensure that children and youth in foster care are supported in overcoming barriers to their academic achievement,” says Eric Sahakian, Executive Director of Pasadena Unified’s Child Welfare Attendance and Safety. His office leads the delivery of services to foster youth and is training staff on trauma informed care.
Foster Youth Centers at Eliot Middle School and John Muir High School opened in October 2016 and serve as places of support for children and youth who suffer from the traumatic effects of displacement from family and schools and multiple placements in foster care. The Center’s services are designed to improve children's educational performance and personal achievement and include help obtaining health and school records to establish appropriate placements and to coordinate instruction, counseling, tutoring, mentoring, vocational training, emancipation services, training for independent living, and other related services.
Established in partnership with All Saints Church Foster Care Project, Pasadena City College, and PUSD, the centers are staffed by volunteers, PCC staff, and Franchesca Ocasio (pictured, above), the district’s foster youth/group home liaison hired in 2015.
“The Centers serve as places on campus where kids can drop in and find help or someone to listen,” said Ocasio. “They can access district and external resources to support them during one of the vulnerable times in their lives.”
Ocasio was hired to ensure that PUSD students in foster care get access to the same educational programs, services, and extracurricular and enrichment activities available to all students. Her main responsibility is to assess foster youth for academic, behavioral, and attendance needs.
“I serve as a link between children and youth, the school district and the caregiver, whether that’s a group home or the home of the aunt, uncle or grandparent who takes care of them,” says Ocasio. “Many foster youth change homes and schools frequently and sometimes the supports they needed years ago didn’t follow them through the moves. Children are traumatized not only by what happened to them, but by the very fact of being taken from their homes, and these traumas manifest in classroom. They need a lot of support and adults to give them on-one attention.”
The Foster Youth Guardians/Parents and Advocates Council (FYGPAC) was established by the PUSD Board of Education in August 2016 to improve the overall functioning of students and to facilitate their educational experience by addressing academic, emotional, and behavioral needs. The Council, which consists of guardians/parents, students, community advocates, professionals affiliated with foster youth group homes, district staff, and Pasadena City College staff, has a developed a five-point work plan for improvement, ranging from trauma-informed care for delivery of mental health services; improving the transition from special education to mainstream; training of staff; and improved information about and access to district services and programs.
“The Council brings together the internal and external resources of our community,” says Sahakian. “The Council augments the infrastructure and provides a forum for that strengthens communication and collaboration between service agencies, partners, foster parents and schools so that we are better equipped to support foster youth and prepare them to be successful.”
Longtime foster youth advocate and co-founder of All Saints’ Church Foster Youth Project Jeannette Mann chairs the Council.
“This work comes from a desire to make life better for foster children,” she says. Mann helped establish the Foster Care Project, which raises awareness of foster care and recruits volunteers to serve in public and private agencies or work on special projects designed to enhance the lives of foster children. “As a state, we’ve collectively undertaken to parent youth in foster care. As a community, we have to do a better job of parenting.”
To support foster youth caregivers, PCC offers training and licensing programs required for earning and renewing license to be a kinship providers. Courses and workshops provide quality education and support so you can meet the educational, emotional, behavioral and developmental needs of foster youth.
PUSD services for foster youth include: