Alternative School Model Looks to Improve Academic Outcomes for Foster Youth

An open independent study area provides space and computers for students to complete their coursework at the Los Angeles Learn4Life campus. Photo: Sara Tiano

After entering foster care at 16, Taneil Franklin moved between three different high schools in just one year. And even before that, while living in an unstable situation with her father, she’d transferred a couple times — in all, she’d matriculated in five high schools by the time she reached her senior year.

Franklin, now 18, managed better than most in her situation, maintaining passable grades, but with all the turmoil and transfers, her grades were slipping and she was on track to need at least an extra year to graduate — but she doesn’t think she would have stuck with it long enough to finish.

Everything changed for Franklin when she found Learn4Life, an alternative to the traditional high school model that boasts one-on-one instruction and flexible schedules to accommodate students who may struggle academically due to outside circumstances and distractions in their lives.

“In regular schools there’s a lot of people, it’s really loud. Here it’s one-on-one, it’s a lot quieter,” she said, noting that the setting was especially good for youth with anxiety or excess stress. “I used to ditch class a lot. Here I actually want to come to school.”

When Franklin transferred to Learn4Life halfway through her senior year, they were able to provide supports and an academic plan specific to her needs and situation. Through a California law intended to help foster youth succeed in school, they were able to reduce Franklin’s credit requirement by eliminating the need for her to take electives. The flexible schedule allowed her to attend school on her time, while maintaining two jobs.

In June, Franklin became the first member of her family to ever graduate from high school.

A Different Path to Success

These are the kinds of success stories that Learn4Life strives for. They seek out students at risk of dropping out or who have different needs than traditional school addresses and help them forge a path to academic success and steady employment by blending academic instruction with connections to resources, extra support and job skills training.

“I got into this because I was raised in a foster family,” Caprice Young, superintendent of the Learn4Life schools told The Chronicle of Social Change. “I was one of the biologically connected kids in the foster family so I have 36 brothers and sisters. Making sure that there are great opportunities for foster students to have success in wherever their dreams may take them is near and dear to my heart.”

And Learn4Life’s results are strong. According to the organization, they’ve seen more than 16,000 youth through to graduation since opening 18 years ago and 46 percent of the grads from their more than 80 campuses in California, Michigan and Ohio go on to enroll in post-secondary education. Nationally, 67 percent of all high school grads go on to enroll immediately in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Flexibility and Individualized Attention

The school’s academic model is structured to accommodate students who have full-time jobs to support themselves or teen parents caring for their children. Since the school runs an independent study model, students are required to come to campus just twice per week for “blocks” of an hour and a half at a time, or three hours per week total though they can come more often or stay longer. The schools offer three to four blocks per day from 8 a.m. to sometimes as late as 7 p.m.; some campuses even open up on Saturdays.

The Learn4Life campuses, or resource centers as the school calls them, are typically located in empty retail spaces or large office buildings where they take over entire floors and revamp them into bright, colorful learning zones.

Unlike many alternative high schools, Learn4Life works to ensure students have as “normal” a high school experience as possible. They have music classes, sports teams and a cheer squad, host a prom and a grad night. And almost all of these activities are free to participate in, unlike extracurriculars at traditional high schools that charge fees for sports uniforms and even graduation caps and gowns.

Learn4Life is a public school, so receives the same state funding — about $12,000 per student, per year — as traditional schools, though they do not accept federal funding. Because the school doesn’t have the overhead costs of a traditional brick-and-mortar campus, they’re able to foot the bill for these activities, provide extra resources and offer a lower teacher to student ratio to allow for individualized attention.

Norma Vijeila, principal of the Inglewood, California Learn4Life campus, with community liaison Eunetra Rutledge. Photo: Sara Tiano

Meeting the Needs of the Whole Person

The Learn4Life model is built on a framework focusing on four key tenets: care, academic growth, mentorship and resilience. Care comes first, says Norma Vijeila, principal of the Inglewood, Calif., Learn4Life campus. She said it’s necessary to address the “hierarchy of needs” — like ensuring students are safe and fed — before focusing on education.

The schools provide snacks and free lunch every day. They also employ “community liaisons” who connect youth with resources like food banks and shelters when necessary. At the Inglewood location, community liaison Eunetra Rutledge makes visits to local shelters and housing programs to make sure they’re safe and well-run and to find out the steps students must take to access them.

For youth who are parenting or who need to take care of siblings during the day, the schools provide a special classroom decked out with baby supplies and toys for tots of all ages. The students keep an eye on their kids while doing their schoolwork, and teachers pop in periodically to offer support, even taking care of the kids for a bit when students take an exam or just need a break.

More than 2,500 of Learn4Life’s students are pregnant or parents, and only 50 percent of teen mothers graduate high school by age 22, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). This model provides benefits for both the students and their kids, said Ann Abajian, who does public relations for the schools.

“The children are watching their parents study and work — that’s another way we help break the cycle,” Abajian explained. Some of the campuses even offer child development, parenting and nutrition classes for young parents.

Learn4Life recognize that when the youth at their school act out, it likely stems from an extreme stressor in their lives outside of school, and they respond with support and restorative justice, a disciplinary approach that focuses on reconciliation and learning from mistakes, rather than punishment.

“When you do something, we’ve got to figure out what’s going on with you,” said Vijeila.

Young, the superintendent, said that their nontraditional model actually reduces behavioral issues as well by removing some of the stimuli that can trigger or add to their stress levels.

“We have a lot of kids who have been suspended, who have been in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “All of these students in a normal school environment would be considered behavioral problems. When you take away all the things that cause behavioral problems — like being in a 30-kid classroom, those behavioral issues go away.”

Students work one-on-one with teachers at the Los Angeles Learn4Life campus. Photo: Sara Tiano

Working Toward the Future

Recognizing that foster and other vulnerable youth have lower high school graduation rates and are statistically less likely to go to college, Learn4Life has developed supports to help youth stay the course.

Each campus employs a “student chaser” who jumps into action when kids miss class. This staff member will visit students’ homes, workplaces or commonly visited community spots to see what’s causing the truancy and how they can be re-engaged. Two missed days is all it takes to trigger this support response.

There’s a strong focus on higher education, with college counselors working with the teens and taking them to college fairs and on site visits to colleges both in and out of state. The school also takes youth on community service trips to help them get volunteer hours that will help bolster their applications.

Youth who do enroll in college even get a medal from the school, said Franklin, who will attend Los Angeles Trade Tech this summer pursuing nursing and business.

But for those who don’t see college as the right next step for them, Learn4Life provides a 10-week jobs training program, focusing on the basics of professionalism, like dress code, building resumes and acquiring references. The school even collects donated business attire so students in need of nice clothes for an interview can get them for free.

Learn4Life community liaisons forge relationships with businesses to set students up with internships and apprenticeships, and then monitor the youth’s performance at the jobsite to ensure they’re rising to the challenge and getting a learning experience.

Some of the internship programs even provide additional training. Through a partnership with UPS, for example, students take three college-level courses in global logistics and then work with UPS through the holiday season. In the past, the Inglewood campus has worked with the Hospitality Training Academy, which prepares youth for careers in the restaurant and hotel industries, providing an 8-week specialized training program followed by an apprenticeship at a local business.

The schools are always looking to add new courses that can help their students get a leg up in pursuing careers they’re interested in. In Inglewood, they’ll be running a digital media course and hope to set up a salon training program and data and technology courses in the near future.

“The goal is to prepare them for what’s next,” said Vijeila.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 88 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change