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Foster children become focus of California schools

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 5:27 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — California is embarking on a first-of-its-kind attempt to improve the academic lives of foster youths by giving schools more money to meet their special learning and emotional needs, and holding educators and administrators accountable.

But first, officials have to figure out how many school-age foster children they have and where they are enrolled in a state that's home to nearly one-fifth of the nation's foster children.

Until now, no state has attempted to identify every foster child in its public schools or to systematically track their progress, much less funnel funds toward those students or require school districts to show they are spending the money effectively.

That changed in California this month as part of a new school funding formula that will direct billions of extra dollars to districts based on how many students they have with low family incomes, who are learning to speak English or are in foster care.

The state's 1,043 school systems had to submit plans by July 1 for how they intend to use the money, a pot projected to reach at least $9.3 billion by 2021, to increase or improve services for those groups.

The 10 school districts in Santa Cruz County, with about 450 foster children, have proposed tutoring, counseling, extracurricular activities and other help for foster youths in the region south of San Jose.

County Superintendent Michael Watkins said such efforts are a result of the state's “holding everyone's feet to the fire” by grading schools on support for foster children.

“We won't know for a couple years, probably, but I'm hopeful this will stem the tide for youth who, through no fault of their own, end up in a system that totally fails them,” Watkins said.

Michael Jones, a resource teacher in the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, has doubts.

“You can't fund decency,” Jones said.

Six years ago, he founded a weekly class in which students in foster care could meet each other, talk about their struggles, get a hug and pick up school supplies, toiletries and even prom attire that he bought or were donated. He has expanded it to the district's other high schools.

Former student Kandance Stagner, 18, who has been in seven foster care settings since the second grade, graduated from high school in June and is preparing to attend college in Nebraska — achievements she attributes in large part to the nurturing environment Jones created.

She hopes foster youths who come after her will get the tutoring and help she received.

“I understand what they've gone through, and I've been through what they've gone through, and I chose to take a bigger and broader step,” Stagner said. “I just know, I hope, that we will stop being the outcasts and the statistics.”

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