Equal Footing: Oakland Program Keeps Foster Youth on Track to Graduate with Their Peers

The Oakland-based Civicorps aims to prepare young people for the workforce through education and job-readiness training.

When Tramischa Cole, a homeless 24-year-old mother of one, stumbled across a Civicorps flier in 2015, she didn’t expect to be accepted into the Bay Area’s only accredited high school and job training program for 18 to 26 year olds.

It’s not that Civicorps had a waiting list: Cole was worried her parenting responsibilities and lack of housing would be an issue.

“I told them I’m homeless and I don’t have child care,” Cole said. “I thought everything I was telling them would be something to stop me from coming and being successful. They said, ‘We’re here for you.’”

That’s not something former foster youth like Cole are used to hearing. According to the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, the national high school graduation rate for foster youth is 50 percent, and fewer than 9 percent of foster youth go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Foster youth enrolled with Civicorps, the Oakland-based education and job training nonprofit, are faring much better, according to a third-party study of the organization.

With a 72 percent graduation rate, Civicorps is one of the highest performing high schools in Oakland, supporting older students as they work toward their diplomas and prepare for their careers. And despite experiencing more setbacks along the way, the study found that foster youth participants succeed at the same rate as their other peers in the program; they also graduated at a 72 percent clip.

The Civicorps program is about more than just helping disconnected older youth get their high school diplomas. For the program’s first 12 weeks, students spend 30 hours a week working on coursework in the organization’s academy. Once they’ve made sufficient progress in the classroom, students then begin the job readiness program.

For 32 hours a week, students work alongside partners that include the California Department of Transportation, the East Bay Regional Parks District, California Flood Control and waste management companies on conservation-related projects. Students get paid Oakland minimum wage ($13.23/hour) and continue to go to school for eight hours a week.

Civicorps Executive Director Alan Lessik says that having the dual focus of coursework and job training is the key to the program’s success.

“Folks need to work,” Lessik said. “But we recognize that they need more than a job — they still need their high school diplomas. Having a place where people can do both creates some tension by itself; but on the other hand, it meets their academic and monetary needs.”

During their time in the program, students are provided with wraparound services, including counseling and therapy, as well as support with housing, childcare and mental health. On average, it takes students 18 months to get through the program.

Civicorps graduates celebrate last June.

Once a student graduates, Civicorps continues to offer college and career services to students, as well as internship opportunities. Graduates are also eligible to enroll in a Class B truck driver training program, free of charge.

Even before the final report on Civicorps’ foster youth came out last fall, Lessik hypothesized that the organization’s foster-involved and non-foster-involved youth achieved similar levels of success in the program.

“In the beginning, we never thought that foster youth needed anything significantly different than other youth,” Lessik said, “Because other youth in our program also have those same needs. There wasn’t a characteristic that came out in the study that we weren’t already trying to address in some way or another.”

When Natasha Vinakor first heard about Civicorps’ foster youth study, she had her concerns. As the organization’s lead case counselor, Vinakor spends a lot of time with students, providing a hybrid of case management and therapy.

“I didn’t want to categorize people,” she said. “I don’t like labels. I like to treat everyone the same.”

Whereas most studies comparing foster youth to non-foster youth focus on demographics, the Civicorps report strived to show what happens to foster youth within a program compared to the rest of the student body.

The first thing that surprised Vinakor about the study’s findings is just how many of Civicorps’ youth had some level of contact with the foster care system — 22 percent. Unlike other studies that focus on emancipated foster youth, the Civicorps study defined former foster youth as students who had any level of contact with the system, even if it was a single day in a group home.

According to the findings, foster-involved youth differed from their peers in four statistically significant ways:

  • Former foster youth enrolled in Civicorps are more likely to have children than their non-foster youth classmates (48 percent compared to 32 percent).
  • They are more likely than their peers to have been victims of violence in their lifetimes (50 percent compared to 31 percent).
  • They are more likely than other Civicorps students to have been incarcerated in their lifetimes (55 percent compared to 38 percent).
  • They report significantly lower household income levels than other Civicorps’ non-foster students.

Foster youth also struggled to complete the program without interruptions more often than other students. While 21 percent of Civicorps’ non-foster-involved youth had a negative exit two or more times over the course of their enrollment, that number was 32 percent for former foster youth.

And despite all of that, the former foster youth succeeded in the program at the same rate as others. Civicorps staff report a graduation rate of 72 percent for all of its students — former and non-former foster youth. More so, 73 percent of all its students are either enrolled in college and/or employed one year after graduating from the program.

“Interestingly, foster youth were in and out of the program more,” Lessik said, “but they still graduated at the same rate and in the same amount of time period as everyone else, which to me talks about resilience and their ability to focus and to achieve a goal that they want to achieve.”

Vinakor said she was surprised how open youth were for the study.

“I think I had my own idea that maybe this is something I shouldn’t necessarily bring up, but people want to tell their stories,” Vinakor said.

Danielle Inocencio, 19, didn’t mind talking about her past. The East Oakland native grew up in Vallejo, and she was in and out of the foster care system from infancy until she was 7. Two months before she was supposed to graduate high school, Inocencio dropped out.

“My adopted mom told me she wanted me to go back to school,” Inocencio said. “A couple of months before I started [at Civicorps], she passed away. That’s what pushed me to do it.”

Inocencio is currently completing her coursework, and dealing with the loss of her mother has been difficult. Although she says she’s easily distracted, Civicorps has helped her to focus and cope.

“The counselors always make the time to talk face-to-face, and I really need that every day after class,” she said. “I’m never treated differently here because of my background. We all get treated the same.”

Despite her homelessness and lack of child care, Cole whose story was shared at the beginning of this story, went straight through the Civicorps program and graduated within a year.

“I didn’t take no breaks, because I didn’t need no breaks,” Cole said. “I was already living place to place, so I just needed to keep going to school, going to work and working my way up.”

Cole went onto land a two-year internship with the Oakland Housing Authority, and today she has steady employment and an apartment in San Leandro.

Regardless of how long it takes a student to complete the program, Lessik says that having a rigid one-strike-and-you’re-out policy is a disservice to students, especially former foster youth.

“We’ve had foundations tell us ‘we won’t fund you because you’re treating foster kids like everyone else,’” Lessik said. “And we say, ‘yeah we do, and it works.’”

“If you do it right, foster youth are just like all other youth, especially if you have a smooth way to allow people to come in and out of the program so they can deal with children and money and housing,” Lessik said. “Over time they’ll get stabilized, and then they’ll succeed.”

Shane Downing 
is a San Francisco-based writer and a neighborhood editor for Hoodline. View Downing’s portfolio and follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.

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