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Regional collaboration is helping youth from foster care attend college

Regional collaboration is helping youth from foster care attend college

The BCFES project purchased $150,000 worth of essential supplies to provide “College Ready Baskets” to students with a history of foster care. Volunteers assembled the baskets earlier this month.


BACK TO SCHOOL

AUGUST 30, 2021 — There are many reasons collaborations develop. Sometimes it’s to create efficiencies, generate profit or spur solutions. But the ones that most people remember are those that come from the heart. The Bexar County Fostering Educational Success project (BCFES) is a prime example of the region’s commitment to student success.

“I’ve learned that everyone has a pure interest in providing support to students with a history of foster care,” said Airika Buford, project director at BCFES. “They have compassion for our region’s students and want to see them succeed. It’s truly a selfless act of service.”

The BCFES is a partnership between UTSA, Texas A&M University-San Antonio (A&M-SA), the Alamo Colleges District (ACD), Bexar County Children's Court and Child Advocates San Antonio (CASA).


“Why are expectations any lower for young people who have been in foster care than what I hold for my own daughter or my parents held for me?”





The program aims to improve college graduation rates for students with a lived history in foster care and to increase college awareness and enrollment for children still in foster care.

Data shows that about 4% of those who have been in foster care will earn a college degree and many, particularly those who age out, experience trauma, homelessness and mental health and substance abuse problems—never to know the lifelong benefits of completing college.

“I have asked for a long time why is this so and why as a society do we tolerate it? Why are expectations any lower for young people who have been in foster care than what I hold for my own daughter or my parents held for me?” said UTSA First Lady Peggy Eighmy, who has been the catalyst for the BCFES project on behalf of the university and the region.

Eighmy began her career in child welfare in Massachusetts and has served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in Tennessee and Texas.

Now she is using her position to improve the destinies of youth with a history of foster care across Bexar County.

“When my husband became president at UTSA, I knew I had a unique opportunity to use the platform of the President’s Office and my role as First Lady to leverage my experience and work toward improving educational outcomes for foster alumni,” Eighmy said.

Initially the project aimed to support only those at UTSA. However, Eighmy credits State Sen. José Menéndez for his encouragement to think bigger and expand the program beyond the university’s walls, and Children’s Court Judge Peter Sakai, who advocated for a collaboration to work with children while they were still in foster care.

President Taylor Eighmy has long supported his wife’s passion and encouraged his counterparts at ACD and A&M-SA to participate. It wasn’t long before an agreement was reached between all three higher education institutions, the Bexar County Children’s Court and Child Advocates San Antonio.

Peggy Eighmy also tapped expertise from within the university. A fortunate encounter with Megan Piel, an assistant professor in the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy’s Department of Social Work, proved critical.

“When I arrived at UTSA in fall 2018, I met UTSA First Lady Peggy Eighmy as part of a reception for new faculty,” Piel said. “We shared a passion for improving outcomes for students with experiences of foster care.”

Piel’s research and previous social work experience focused on supporting youth transitioning to adulthood from the foster care system, including transitions to postsecondary education. Coupled with Peggy Eighmy’s passion and advocacy for youth and young adults with a history of foster care, Piel’s experience helped shape the partnership.

Both collaborated on the language that was needed to draft the bill sponsored by State Senators Menéndez and Pete Flores, as well as State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, that eventually won first-of-its-kind funding from the Texas Legislature. Piel serves as the pilot’s Principal Investigator and hopes that the research developed from the pilot will influence policy and practice throughout the United States.

The BCFES was awarded $3.5 million during its initial launch in 2019. As evidence of the pilot project’s early impact, the countywide collaboration was recently again awarded full funding.

The pilot funds campus-based support programs at UTSA, A&M-SA and ACD, as well as pre-college programming in partnership with the Bexar County Children’s Court and CASA. Nearly 400 college students and youth still in foster care have received targeted support. The pilot has also expanded its work to partner with six independent school districts to reach high school students still in foster care.

The success of the program is already evident. Prior to starting the program, UTSA was enrolling approximately 125 students with a history of foster care in academic programs across the university. This fall, UTSA estimates an additional 90 students with a history of foster care have enrolled as freshmen or transfer students.

With the start of this fall term, new and incoming students with a history of foster care will need continued support. The pilot project purchased $150,000 worth of supplies to provide “College Ready Baskets” including all the essentials a student might need throughout the academic year. One of its partners, Day 1 Bags, provided an additional $4,000 worth of duffle bags, backpacks and school supplies.


EXPLORE FURTHER

Yet more community support is needed across the county and beyond from different community sectors such as faith-based and social service organizations. For Buford, these entities have an essential role in supporting students with a history of foster care while developing a network of supportive relationships and community connections.

That support will enable BCFES to change more lives with a pathway to college education.

“I recently attended the graduation of the first young person I met at UTSA with a history of foster care,” Peggy Eighmy said. “Watching her grow into the intellectually curious, confident and generous young woman that she is has been such a joy and privilege. I literally couldn't have been prouder at her graduation ceremony and am thrilled that she is continuing at UTSA in a graduate program.”

Milady Nazir



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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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UTSA Today is produced by University Communications and Marketing, the official news source of The University of Texas at San Antonio. Send your feedback to news@utsa.edu. Keep up-to-date on UTSA news by visiting UTSA Today. Connect with UTSA online at Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.


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