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Accomplishments mount for program targeting youth with history of foster care

Accomplishments mount for program targeting youth with history of foster care

MARCH 29, 2021 — Nearly 19,000 children entered the Texas foster care system in 2019 according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Many of these youths have aspirations to attend college or complete a certification in hopes of securing a better future, yet just 33% of Texas foster care youth ever complete the task of navigating college applications and necessary testing to actually enroll in college, and only 1.3% graduate with a bachelor’s degree by age 24.

UTSA, along with several academic and child welfare partners across Bexar County, have been working to change this trend. Through a first of its kind partnership, the Bexar County Fostering Educational Success Pilot Project (BCFES), has developed programs and practices to guide students with a history of foster care—as young as middle school—toward successfully enrolling and completing college.

“The program has been a lifesaver in more instances, situations and occasions than I can ever imagine.”

The BCFES is a county-wide collaboration between UTSA, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, the Alamo Colleges District, Bexar County Children’s Court, Child Advocates San Antonio (CASA) and Family Tapestry/The Children’s Shelter, that began in 2019 and serves as a national model for student success.

With support from the Texas Legislature and the entire Bexar County delegation, BCFES represents the first time a state legislature has appropriated money specifically to support students with a history of foster care to reach their educational goals. Now the project partners are in need of support from the 2021 Texas Legislature to continue this groundbreaking and life changing work.

Peggy Eighmy, first lady of UTSA, has been a crucial advocate of the project from the beginning.

“I am so grateful to our Bexar County elected officials and the Texas Legislature who bought into my vision that higher education is expected and achievable for students with foster care history, and made certain that we received the funding necessary to create innovative programming to make that dream a reality,” Eighmy said. “Since launching the pilot 18 months ago, we have learned that youth in foster care and foster care alumni enrolled in college are eager to receive comprehensive support. With continued funding, we can enhance and expand programming to serve even more young people and continue research to ascertain which elements of the pilot are most impactful.”

Some of the accomplishments BCFES has achieved include:

  • Nearly 400 foster youth and alumni have received comprehensive support from the pilot project.

    • 263 college students with a history of foster care have received comprehensive services from the campus-based support programs established at UTSA, A&M-San Antonio and the Alamo Colleges District.

    • 127 middle and high school students in foster care have received innovative pre-college and career readiness programming:

      • 67 students still in foster care have received services through the College Bound Docket.

      • 60 students still in foster care have underwent pre-college support and life skills coaching, including a novel program developed by the pilot (“CLIMB”) which works with San Antonio area school districts with the highest number of placement for foster youth to connect them to resources to prepare for college.

    • More than 600 college students at UTSA, A&M-San Antonio and Alamo Colleges have received targeted outreach for the first time.

    • The UTSA Fostering Educational Success Center opened in 2019 on the Main Campus, offering various resources and support services such as a campus coach and the food pantry. A&M-San Antonio and the Alamo Colleges District have also opened similar campus-based support programs as part of the pilot project.

MJ Jones, a psychology student slated to graduate from UTSA this December, is among the former foster care students benefiting from the various efforts of the pilot.

“These resources and programs have impacted many more lives more than my own. When coming out of foster care, it is extremely difficult to make it on your own. Even though we are ‘adults,’ it is so hard to navigate normal life matters,” Jones said. “The pilot is a safety net that most kids coming out of foster care do not have. This pilot project has provided people for youth to talk to, counseling services and emergency funds. Money isn’t everything, but it sure does make a difference when that burden is lifted.”

Jones came to UTSA and San Antonio after becoming a student advocate for the College Bound Docket, a program which provides targeted mentoring, advocacy and academic support to improve college readiness for foster care youth in Bexar County.

“The College Bound Docket has changed my life. It sounds dramatic, but this opportunity saved my life,” Jones said. “Being able to use my personal experiences and story has helped fulfill a purpose in my life.”

For A&M-San Antonio alumna Ashley Garcia, who graduated in fall 2020 with her bachelor’s degree in business administration, the project helped her achieve her goals.

“The program has impacted me both before and during COVID in multiple monumental ways,” Garcia said. “It connected me with other youth who come from similar backgrounds and have similar experiences. Secondly, the resources and guidance that are and have been made available to me are unlike any other I have ever received.”

Garcia, who experienced some unexpected financial challenges, said that if it had not been for the BCFES project, she would not have been able to remain in college.

“The program has been a lifesaver in more instances, situations and occasions than I can ever imagine,” she said. “This program is essential and very much appreciated.”

In addition to programs to support students, UTSA researchers are also conducting research related to the pipeline of educational support for students with a history of foster care. Preliminary findings have been used to improve program development and implementation. However, further research must be conducted over a period of at least four years to better understand the program’s impact. 

“We are conducting innovative, community-engaged research on the pipeline of educational support for students who have experienced foster care,” said Megan Piel, UTSA assistant professor of social work and principal investigator. “Continuation of this work over the next four years is critical to understanding the pilot’s impact and how our model of cross-system collaboration may be replicated in other areas of Texas and across the United States.”

The pilot project has also leveraged the state’s initial investment of $3.5 million for an additional $1.55 million through federal, state, and local philanthropic resources. This includes a first-of-its kind $1.2 million award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop housing solutions for college students with a history of foster care who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

As they look toward the future, BCFES advocates are targeting six primary areas of support:

  • Pre-college pipeline: Improving identification and engagement strategies for students still in foster care.

  • Campus-based support: Increasing college enrollment and students served, and enriching supportive services such as housing, peer mentoring, career mentoring/employment opportunities and childcare.

  • Racial equity and inclusion: Employing a targeted outreach and recruitment strategy to include direct services, mentoring, and advocacy for students of color to reduce racial disparities in education.

  • Youth voice and empowerment: Increasing the number of youth and young adults who engage in advocacy and action, collaborate with other youth leaders, and serve as a catalyst for change.

  • Data sharing: Enhancing data-sharing among child welfare, courts, and K-12 and postsecondary education.

  • Strategic action: Enhancing cross-system collaboration to increase systematic change and policy reform that improves outcomes for foster youth and alumni.

"We have made tremendous strides in our first year. Our network has gone above and beyond to support our students' academic and emotional-preparedness for college,” said Airika Buford, the pilot’s director. “Looking ahead, these areas will allow our network to advance the educational trajectories of youth and young adults with foster care history.”

Despite the great work already accomplished, Buford said there is an excellent opportunity to broaden the scope, empower and showcase strengths, and ensure the program’s practices and collaboration encompasses the complex needs of the students. 

“The BCFES pilot is truly an innovative and transformative model that can provide long-lasting change in the educational and life outcomes of young people with lived experience in systems of care,” she said.

Valerie Bustamante

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