On the Outskirts of Skid Row

03/22/2012 06:08 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

California's much-maligned community college system stands an important but tenuous bulwark against homelessness for former foster youth.

On the outskirts of Skid Row, one of the densest concentrations of homelessness in the United States, lies Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATT). In its labyrinth of classrooms and among its swollen 28,000 student body, exists a group of young people for whom community college, ailing a system as it may be, is often the difference between a chance at success or a life eked out just a few blocks north east.

"Growing up in foster care; it's like you go through life blindfolded," says 23-year-old Michael Ibardoloza, who is on the cusp of transferring from Trade Tech to Cal State Los Angeles to study psychology. Along his five-year community college journey, Ibardoloza earned a culinary arts certification and an associates degree in Liberal Arts -- achievements he credits to LATT's Foster and Kinship Care Education Program. But that first step, which put this diminutive, soft-spoken young man on a path towards something, was all his own.

Soon after his 18th birthday, Ibardoloza told his then foster parents that he wanted to go to college. They responded with an ultimatum: either stay and help take care of the other kids in the house or move out. "I was with them for 10 or 11 years. To realize that they just saw me as a resource is disgusting." And just like that, "blindfolded," left to himself and homeless, Ibardoloza enrolled in college.

In an effort to capitalize on the determination exhibited by former foster youth like Ibardoloza, while combatting the societal cost of unfulfilled ambition in so many others, a broad array of interests from higher education, policy and philanthropy have mobilized over the past two decades to create a wide and varied array of supports. But, the web these forces created and the success achieved thus far is delicate; and as the tectonic plates of State fiscal and higher education policy shift, an oasis like the one found at Trade Tech is far from secure.

Of the 55,000 California children in foster care, more than 4,000 will "age out" of the system every year without a permanent connection to adults; 1,200 in Los Angeles County alone. While research shows that students in foster care score consistently lower on all academic measures than their peers throughout elementary and secondary education, and that roughly one in two will graduate from high school, a considerable number still hope to obtain college degree. Seventy one percent of 17 and 18 year-olds wanted to attend and finish college, according to the three-state Midwest Study of outcomes for transition age youth conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Here in LA County, foster youth are turning aspiration into action. A study released late last year by the Hilton Foundation found that 46% of the county's former foster youth had enrolled in community college by the time they were in their mid twenties.

But the same study found that enrolling in college wasn't necessarily enough, with only two percent going on to earn an Associate's Degree. While the data only tracked schools in LA County and thus did not account for youth who enrolled outside the county, the findings are similar to those seen in limited existing studies from across the country. These show college completion rates ranging from one to nine percent. Compared to the 28% of the general population who do go on to graduate from college, the majority of former foster youth clearly enter adulthood at a deficit.

Filling that deficit has taken many forms here in California. On the policy level, the California Sate Legislature passed two bills in the last two years that: 1) extend foster care to age 20 and 2) give students in foster care priority enrollment in California's public universities. Scores of CSUs and UCs and a pair of community colleges have Guardian, Renaissance or Enriched Scholars programs, which offer various levels of support for former foster youth. The California Community College Chancellor's Office's Foster Youth Success Initiative bestows the title and responsibility of foster youth "liaison" to one existing employee on all of the system's 192 campuses. The two-and-a-half-year-old Community College Pathways Project for Former Foster Youth (CCP), funded by the Stuart and Walter S. Johnson Foundations, provides $25,000 annual grants to nine community college campuses to support people like Dr. Dione Washington who runs Trade Tech's Foster Care and Kinship Education Program connect foster youth with people who can offer resources both on and off campus.

When it comes to individual community colleges, much of the work that is starting to show real progress for foster youth is built on a tenuous scaffolding of other contracts. Washington, who serves as the den mother for 189 students at Trade Tech, wouldn't have a job or be able to use the CCP grant to hire peer mentors and establish volunteer support teams if it wasn't for the school's long-term contracts with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to provide life skills training for foster youth under the Independent Living Program (ILP) and with the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to train foster parents and kinship providers. Both contracts are in question, as DCFS has announced a plan to change how it delivers ILP services and CDSS evaluates how it will administer foster parent and kin care training under re-alignment.

Compound the school-level variables for Washington's program with the direction of higher education in the state, and one appreciates how tenuous the educational stability and success of students like Ibardalazo is.

In January, the 20-member California Community College Student Success Task Force released a broad set of recommendations aimed at fighting the larger systemic problems. Trade Tech's foster care program is a window into understanding. Currently, 53.6% of California's 2.6 million community college students will earn a certificate, degree or transfer to a four-year institution, according to the Task Force. The Task Force's recommendations to improve completion rates include requiring students to come up with an educational plan, declare a program of study and a an overhaul of enrollment priorities. Under the plan, first time students in good academic standing and on track with their educational plans would be given priority enrollment over students who stay longer and struggle academically.

But aren't kids -- whether having experience foster care or not -- jettisoned from California's ailing public schools system, woefully unprepared for college study and living in poverty, homelessness or on the razor edge of both, predisposed to struggling more and taking longer to accomplish academic goals? For former foster youth this is certainly true. Data compiled as part of the CCP initiative shows that 39% of Trade Tech's foster youth come into school unsure of what career they want, and another 41% are unsure about what major they want to pursue.

"The motivational level is different," Washington says. "Students living with parents have people cheering them on. Foster youth are often living with someone without that caring spirit. They don't hear those words."

Researcher Mark Courtney and colleagues at Chapin Hall describe one subgroup of aged out foster youth as "emerging adults," a term borrowed from developmental scholar Jeffrey Arnett. "They are delaying some transition markers (e.g., living on their own, finishing school, having children) while generally avoiding hardship," Courtney et al. write. The slow, zigzagging and sometimes seemingly aimless pursuit of higher education in-and-of-itself resulted in lower rates of criminal conviction, child rearing and homelessness. At Trade Tech, all foster youth engaged in the foster care program accessed financial aid, according a survey of the youth. And, foster youth who receive financial aid are five times as likely to achieve a degree, according to research by the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS) and the Center for Social Services Research at UC Berkeley.

But, what foster youth are facing and need time to overcome is not something they endure alone; the average community college student isn't all that better off.

According to the Task Force, seventy percent of students come to school underprepared to do college-level work. "A majority of these are first generation college students, low income and/or are from underrepresented groups. These students face the most challenging obstacles for success and, unfortunately, have the lowest completion rates in the system," the paper reads.

For Theresa Rowland, who oversees CCP, creating an environment that gives students skills to enter the workforce is just as important as completion, and fears that an emphasis on completion may disadvantage those who need the most help. "It's concerning that we have conversations about the rationing of education. If you are looking at outcomes which will make community colleges shine, the focus is going to be on populations that are ready to succeed."

Nancy Shulock, Executive Director for the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University at Sacramento, and a member of the Task Force, is, like Rowland, highly concerned with California's impending shortage of mid to high skilled workers. But, Shulock argues, and has released extensive reports showing, that when students achieve academic milestones early and consistently in community college they earn certifications, associate degrees and transfer on to four-year universities at higher frequencies. "There is no point in students just amassing credits that don't lead to anything," she says.

While few would argue this point, many fear that the warnings of the Task Force "that its recommendations are in no way meant as a substitute for additional funding" will be taken by spending averse politicians as just that, making a hard road for kids handed hard circumstance even more difficult. An unexpected $149-million cut to the community college budget in February echoes those concerns.

As we slash and burn our way towards balanced budgets, it is important to take note of what we may lose in the process. Ibardoloza's response to where he would be without Trade Tech and its foster youth program would sound trite if it weren't so true. "I would still be homeless," he says.