A Bay Area foster youth is racking up attention — and prize money — for an app he developed to help connect foster youth to services that will help them get into college.
Joseph Franco, 18, won $5,000 last month as the third runner-up in the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship Youth Challenge, an annual competition that gives young entrepreneurs the chance to use their business endeavors to compete for prize money.
About 65 percent of foster youth obtain a high school diploma by age 21. Of those who do, less than 3 percent go on to earn a degree from a four-year college, according to a preeminent study about outcomes for foster youth.
“If I can help raise that number even a couple percent I will have made the exact impact on the foster system that I set out for,” Franco said
Franco’s app, F-Connect, acts as a direct gateway to the information that foster youth need to apply to college and for scholarships. It also functions as a social network that connects users with fellow foster youth at colleges, as well as with high-school counselors.
According to Franco, knowing is half the battle when it comes to utilizing the resources that are available after high school.
“I didn’t know about all the services that are out there specifically for foster youth,” he said. He’d asked his social worker for help figuring out his college plans, but his questions went unanswered.
Fortunately, Franco received the help he needed from his high school counselor after complaining about the problems he had with his social worker. When he learned of all the once-hidden resources available to him as a foster youth, Franco set out to help others in his situation.
When a user logs into F-Connect, he or she is prompted to complete a questionnaire that allows the app to determine exactly where the student is in the college application process. Responses to the questionnaire generate a checklist of tasks that students need to complete to fulfill application requirements and prepare to start school, such as deadlines to apply, resources on applying for financial aid and links to find housing services.
The app began as a class project that Franco developed during his senior year at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, a Bay Area suburb. Back then, Franco missed school for days at a time because his social worker was failing to provide him with transit passes.
Frustrated, Franco said he would wonder, “Why do I have to keep waiting for this social worker? Why is he so unreliable?”
Eventually one of Franco’s teachers asked him what was causing his attendance to slip, and he opened up about his struggles with his social worker. When Franco told her that transportation was the issue, that teacher, Katrina Miranda, took it upon herself to provide him with rail passes so that he could make the commute from Oakland, where he lived, to school in Hayward — an 11-mile trek each way.
“All these students need is love,” Miranda said, when asked what made her lend that special hand to Franco. He didn’t miss one day of class after that.
When Miranda, who taught Franco’s entrepreneurship class — assigned the students to design a business — “something that solves a problem in your community,” she said — she unknowingly sparked the concept for F-Connect in Franco’s brain.
Franco knows he got lucky with the aid he found in Miranda and his school counselor. With F-Connect, which will be released to the public in 2019, he’s trying to make sure every foster youth gets that same kind of support.
For now, Franco is studying business at Chabot Community College in Hayward. He plans to transfer to a four-year college — ideally the Hult International Business School, a private school located in Cambridge, Mass. He wants to continue working with tech and put those skills to use creating improvements for the foster care system.