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Getting More Foster Kids Into College: Maine Program Takes on Challenge
01/10/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

Half of all foster kids nationwide never graduate from high school, according to reasearch from the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall. And of those that do, researchers say only around 2 percent go on to receive a bachelor's degree. In Maine, a former haven for at-risk youth has launched a new effort to try to reverse this trend, one foster child at a time. Jay Field reports.

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Tyneshia Wright's first days at Kennebec Valley Community College have been a lot like those of countless other freshmen. Wright shares an apartment with a roommate. But neither of them cook, so they're eating a lot of cereal. Wright struggles to focus in that dreaded 8 a.m. class.

And the other night, well, "We did lock ourselves out the other night - yeah, we totally had to wait for someone to come let us in," she says.

But Wright's early life was not l ike most other kids. She moved around a lot. She went to live with her first foster family when she was five: "Benton, Rockland, Bangor, Brewer, Waterville again," she says.

Wright lived with a total of eight foster families. She's lost track, she says, of how many state caseworkers she's had.

"From the age of five to eight, I had four caseworkers, maybe even more than that," Wright says. "Sometimes, like, they stay for a week and then you just get a new one anyways. So you really don't know. I never really had a caseworker for a long time."

The impermanence of trusting relationships, changing placements - and school changes that come with them - leave many foster children ill-prepared to graduate from high school, let alone go on to college, says Amy Dworsky. She's a senior researcher at Chapin Hall, a University of Chicago policy and research center focused on youth and family well being.

"They miss school because of some placement issues," Dworsky says. "They often are located in some of the poorest performing schools. So, they're academically just not well prepared for college."

In Maine, an average of 128 kids age out of foster care annually. Fewer than half will graduate high school this year. Of those, no more than 13 percent will go on to pursue a bachelor's degree. Just 2 percent are likely to finish their college studies. Chapin Hall's Dworsky says the need to play catch-up academically is just one of barriers these students face.

"Many of them don't have anyone really helping them through the process," she says. "For young people who are going to commuter schools or community colleges, where there's not residence halls or dormitories, where do they live? A lot of them don't have the financial resources to pay for housing."

"The size of this apartment is bigger than a lot of college dormatories," says Michael Hinckley-Gordon, director of campus life at Goodwill Hinckley, who leads me up a driveway at the campus in Fairfield, towards a building that looks a little like a ski chalet.

"When it's warm they can sit on the balcony, do their studies, do some reading," he says. "Hi Tenisha!"

This is Tyneshia Wright's apartment. She's one of three kids aging out of foster care who are living here as part of the new "College Step Up" program. It's a partnership between Goodwill Hinckley and Kennebec Valley Community College, funded, to start, with seed money from the Finance Authority of Maine. Goodwill Hinckley Executive Director Glenn Cummings.

"Very few organizations across the state have the ability to actually put a student in a residential facility, or in this case an apartment, where they can live, they can get the support that they need and still go to college," Cummings says.

For now, Tyneshia Wright gets a ride to the Kennebec Valley campus everyday. But by next fall, she won't have to make that trip quite as often, when the college opens its brand new satellite campus at Hinckley.

Teresa Smith, who runs advising and career services at KVCC, says the Goodwill Hinckley parthership offers a real opportunity "to have housing, have some mentoring along the way and some folks to help them, I think is going to go a long way toward helping this particular group of students be successful in their college pursuit."

Two other foster kids are taking part on the pilot phase of College Step Up. The program hopes to serve as many as 10 by next fall.


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