Foster Youths’ Financial Climb Through College Getting Even Steeper

The last time Lerone Matthis was released from the Division of Juvenile Justice on April 2008, the juvenile justice system for troubled youth, he feared he had reached the bottom.

“I was discouraged by the prospects for a meaningful future,” Matthis recalled.

He didn’t have a place to rest his head, bathe or change his clothes. He wore the same jeans and white shirt “that was dingy around the neck” because it hadn’t been washed for a month. Since he didn’t have a place to store his clothes, he bought socks from a neighborhood liquor store. He relied on relatives and friends for food and shelter. Other times, the former foster youth simply went hungry.

When he learned of the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services Second Chance Program, an educational support system for the formerly incarcerated, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco. Still, Matthis, a 29-year-old single father of two young children, said he didn’t believe he would finish school. While he was in jail, he obtained his GED. Being at City College was simply a place to spend the time while he figured how he would earn money next.

“Four years ago, I did not know what it meant to dream, to believe in a future or to have faith in myself,” Matthis said. “As a single father, I struggled to support my two beautiful, growing children.”

Matthis told that story to faculty, administrators and hundreds of recent graduates at City College on Saturday, where Matthis graduated with honors. Matthis will transfer with a 3.4 grade point average to the University of California-Davis, where he will get his undergraduate degree in managerial economics. He plans to get a master’s degree in tax accounting and become a Certified Public Accountant.

The Richmond resident credits his academic success to the Guardian Scholars Program, a nationally recognized program that provides college financial assistance and academic guidance to former foster youth, with helping him gain admission to a four-year university. The program is in more than 30 campuses across California, including private universities, and relies on private funding.

Guardian Scholars receive up to $5,000 to pay for costs not covered by financial aid, such as rent, transportation, and childcare. At City College, about 200 students are part of the program, said Michael McPartlin, coordinator of the Guardians Scholars Program at City College.

But even programs like Guardian Scholars are finding it difficult to meet the growing needs. McPartlin said he no longer advertises the program because it is now filled up to capacity. And City College has about 900 students enrolled who have identified as former foster care youths, according to McPartlin.

Matthis also worked and received scholarships to help support himself and his children, Lerone Jr.,10, and Kaelyn, 2.

While higher education can lead to career advancements and economic independence, access to higher education continues to be dismal for former foster care youths. Estimates suggest that between 7 and 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in college.

A 2010 study by Casey Family Programs found that only 2 percent of young people from foster care complete their bachelor’s degree, compared to 30 percent of the general population. Common barriers to accessing college include low high school graduation rates, emotional and mental health issues, long-term effects of abuse and neglect, academic learning gaps, and records transfers, according to Casey Family website. Paying for college is also a key barrier to completing college for these students.

In a time when California continue to slash funding for schools, and programs that help low-income students, programs like the Guardian Scholars have become essential.

This month, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed, under the revised budget, to decrease Cal Grant awards in the 2012-2013 by $111.5 million by lowering the amount students can get while attending public colleges. It will affect about 30,800 students, according to the governor’s website.

In addition, changes to the Federal Pell Grant starting in July will limit the number of years students can receive the grants from nine to six years. Former foster care students, as well as other low-income students, often start in remedial math and English courses due to challenges in their K-12 education, which can include attending multiple schools during the school year or learning in overcrowded classrooms. This means that for these students, it can take them more than six years to complete their undergraduate degree.

For students like 22-year-old Guardian Scholar Sugyn Paynay, it means having to take out student loans to complete her education, something she says will be difficult since she plans to follow a career path where she may not earn enough to pay back large loans.

“It’s okay to get a loan if you’re becoming a nurse. You’ll eventually make a good [amount] of money but I’m going into teaching,” she said. “Getting a loan will be a real financial burden on the present time, while I’m in school, as well as the future.”

Paynay, a former foster care youth, graduated from Benicia High School in 2007. She attended City College in spring 2008. Even with priority registration as a Guardian Scholar, some of the classes were sometimes full by the time it was her time to sign up for classes, she said. Paynay, who is completing her Associate of Arts degree in child-development, had to take four remedial English courses before she could enroll in an English course that would transfer to a four-year university.

In spite of educators’ enthusiasm to improve access to higher education for foster care youth, government agencies are faced with the realities of persistent budget deficits, said Jill Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

“Until the economy turns around, very few social programs in California are going to be experiencing anything close to full funding,” she said.

This means that programs such as Upward Bound, which provide financial support and preparation assistance for low-income high school students planning to attend college, need to focus on recruiting foster care youth, says Berrick.

On Saturday, a white, red and blue ribbon with a medal hung around Matthis’ neck. His graduation cap had the year “2012” airbrushed on it. On the back of his black graduation gown were two large pictures of his children with the words that kept him pushing forward when things became challenging: “Congratulations Daddy.”

“My kids love their daddy. But I worried they would never be proud of me,” Matthis said.

Matthis grew up in Richmond and entered the foster care system when he was a teen. He was moved from group home to group home in the three years he was in foster care. He felt he didn’t belong in those homes, which made him break his curfews.

“I was never comfortable with them. It was hard to tell other people how you are feeling alone, lost, separated, and alone,” Matthis said. “Many times, I didn’t come back or I stayed out a day or two because it wasn’t my home.”

There was a time, he says, he wondered if he could make it past 25-years old without spending his life in prison. “Many of my friends were dying. The dangers of being shot plagued my everyday life,” he recalled. “Sometimes I begged for the ending of my existence.”

During a stint at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, he learned about a college program San Francisco State University. Admissions people told him it was too late for him to enroll but that he should try City College.

Being part of the Guardians Scholars Program, and other support groups on campus, allowed him to face the emotions he felt as a teen. This year, he spoke at a conference in San Diego about mental health problems in black males as part of his efforts to educate others about males in the foster care system or correctional facilities. As Guardian Scholar, he says, he learned to raise his own expectations of what he can accomplish.

Often times, he said, school personnel have low expectations of former foster youths and automatically steer them toward short-term vocational programs. He has taken it upon himself to share his story with educators and guidance counselors.

“Although former foster youth are dealing with significant challenges that are attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, they can and will succeed if given the right tools or guidance,” Matthis said.

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