JBAY Helps High School Seniors Overcome A Year of Closed Schools

“Over the past year, students have been disconnected, demoralized, and deprived of a full education”, says Amy Lemley, JBAY executive director. “High school seniors may be the worst affected. They not only lost out on their final year of school but also missed the traditional transition points to post-secondary education. This is especially hard for foster youth who can’t learn about applying to college from family. That’s why JBAY is working to ensure that we take what could be the worst year for college enrollment and make it into the best year.”

Foster youth face many obstacles to their education. Children only enter foster care after being abused or neglected. The foster care system often compounds their trauma through multiple placement changes, resulting in frequent transitions to new schools. By age 26, just 8% of foster youth achieve a bachelor’s degree, compared with 46% of the general population.

The lack of support in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has been a key factor holding foster youth back. High school seniors who complete FAFSA are twice as likely to enroll in college within 12 months as those who do not.

JBAY started to address low rates of FAFSA completion among foster youth in 2017 by launching the California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge. Since then, the rate of FAFSA completion for high school seniors in foster care in California has increased from 45% to 65% for 2019-2020, exceeding the 57% rate for all California high school seniors.

COVID is threatening that hard-won progress.

The start of the 2020-21 school year saw a 13.1% decline in first-time student enrollment at community colleges nationwide. This year, California’s rate of FAFSA completion by March 1, 2021, was down to 31% compared to 42% at the same point last year.

JBAY’s own tracking shows a similar decline for foster youth state-wide but with huge differences between counties. While some California counties have actually improved their FAFSA completion rates for foster youth this year, others have seen declines of 50% or more.

JBAY is therefore adding a new incentive in the worst affected counties: a $50 gift card for foster youth who complete their FAFSA. A San Diego County pilot program using gift cards saw the FAFSA completion rates more than double.

That’s why JBAY is doubling down on the FAFSA Challenge. Last year, 65% of graduating seniors in foster care completed their FAFSA, exceeding the rates for their non-foster peers for the first time. This year the goal is 70%.

“We know that college is one of the surest pathways to successful careers and financially secure lives,” Ms. Lemley noted. “By strengthening our efforts now, JBAY can make sure that a lost year of education doesn’t become a lifelong loss.”

From Trauma to Triumph

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of organizations like JBAY,” says Luz Hernandez, a former foster youth who has worked with John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) as an intern and youth advocate. “JBAY helped me to see my value, my potential, and inspired me through so many of the steps that brought me to where I am now.”

Luz just completed another major step toward her goals, when she was accepted by UC Berkeley to pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Welfare.

“I have a strong vision of combining my personal experience and education to work with young people of color who have faced abuse and trauma,” says Luz. “I know firsthand that the social is personal and the personal is social.”  

Luz was brought to the U.S. from Honduras by her father when she was just 14. Rather than attending school, she worked 12-hour shifts and gave every penny she earned to her father. After two years, Luz’s father returned to Honduras but left her behind. She was alone at 16, barely able to speak English. Luz entered foster care after someone reported that a child was living in a San Francisco park. 

“My foster parents enrolled me into school, and that day I felt that I had achieved one of the most important goals in life,” said Luz. “Going to high school without knowing English was a challenge, to say the least. My determination to pursue a college degree is largely due to the inspiring examples and unwavering support of my foster parents and my social worker.”

After aging out of care, Luz’s challenges returned. She became homeless and lived for a time in a garage without heat or running water. There wasn’t even a lock to secure the few belongings she had or keep her safe at night.

Luz never forgot her goals and was able to enroll in City College of San Francisco, and then transferred to San Francisco State University, graduating in May 2018. She also became a U.S. citizen. Luz interned at JBAY, bringing her experiences to advocate for improved comprehensive sexual health education for those in foster care, and for safe, affordable housing for former foster youth. She is now working at First Place for Youth as a Rising Up Housing Case Manager.

“As a first-generation, low-income foster youth from Honduras, the first battle I overcame was the lack of resources for young women who experienced trauma in childhood,” Luz recalls. “It took me a couple of years to find a support system that I could trust, to find adequate healing resources to overcome my trauma. I want to continue fighting against child abuse and supporting foster youth; I want to show our disadvantaged communities that there are people out there that care about their physical, social, and emotional wellbeing. I believe we can imagine a new future for each generation; we can create our own narratives, forge our own paths; we can cultivate community support to heal from trauma.”

To read more about Luz Hernadez’s story, and those of others who have experienced foster care and homelessness, visit JBAY’s Youth Profiles page.

JBAY Testifies at Assembly Hearing to Ensure Student Basic Needs Are Met

Here’s a quick student quiz. Answer A or B:

A. Go to the food bank so that your family can eat tonight.

B. Take the classes that mean by 2025 you will no longer need to go to food banks.

You can only choose one and you have to decide now.

That’s the kind of choice that tens of thousands of California college students make every day. John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) believes there is a clear answer to that painful dilemma: stop asking students to choose between their education and their basic needs.

That’s why JBAY testified at a California State Assembly Budget Subcommittee meeting on February 1, advocating for long-term funding for student basic needs centers. These centers are centralized service centers on campus where students can receive assistance with their “basic needs” such as food, housing, clothing, assistance with child care and transportation.

Students who have spent time in foster care are twice as likely as other students to experience homelessness and food insecurity. For them, campus basic needs centers provide a lifeline. This point was made by JBAY Youth Advocate Christina Torrez.

“I spent my childhood in and out of the foster care system and don’t have the same access to family support that many other students have to fall back on when challenges arise,” Christina told the hearing.

“During my time in college, I have struggled with not only homelessness but having enough money for food, buying diapers, and paying for my children’s medication. To get food, I would have to go to food pantries and would take several buses to get there. As a student, I believe that having a dedicated source of on-going funding to ensure that every campus can support students like me with accessing basic things like food, housing, diapers, and transportation is necessary to make sure that all students have an equal chance to go to college.”

Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, Chair of Budget Subcommittee, ended the hearing by saying: “We hear you loud and clear, and many of these issues related to basic needs will be addressed in the coming weeks and months.”

JBAY will be working to ensure that students who have experienced foster care or homelessness continue to be heard by our legislators in Sacramento.

JBAY’s Newest Youth Advocate Uses Her Hardships to Help Others

“I know COVID is a big thing for everyone in the world but it’s one of the smaller things I’ve faced in my life,” says Rose Johnasen, reflecting on a young life filled with turmoil and tragedy but also with remarkable perseverance and progress. It’s a depth of experience that 20-year-old Rose is now bringing to her newest role as a JBAY Youth Advocate, working to ensure that other young people get more support than she did.

Rose’s parents had substance abuse problems and were in and out of prison. Rose was also abused emotionally and physically. She spent a lot of time in foster care, frequently moving to new homes with her sister who was five years younger. Several times Rose went back to her mother. Other times she was homeless.

“I was separated from everything and everyone I had become familiar with, on numerous occasions, so the only thing that was certain in my life was that everything was temporary,” recalls Rose. “I never knew what to expect. Living out of a bag and getting dropped off at different houses, starting at new schools, or not being able to go to school for weeks. I was constantly behind at school and felt unintelligent because of that. When I did go to school I was unfocused because I was more worried about things that kids shouldn’t have to worry about. I was pulled out of class numerous times by authorities and social workers. I lost confidence in myself and was confused and embarrassed. It was hard for me to relate to other kids my age.”

Rose became fiercely self-reliant, taking care of herself and her younger sister. When Rose’s older sister turned 18, she stepped in to become the legal guardian for ten-year-old Rose and her little sister. But when her sister started her own family, Rose was back out on her own at the age of 15, with no wish to go back into foster care.

Along with her self-reliance, Rose also did well academically, despite all the interruptions and what she describes as being “an angry kid” at school. She graduated high school at 15 and started college at 16. She recalls that “I had no-one to help and to show me how to do things and had no idea what I was doing.” At one point she was doing six college classes and four jobs at the same time. She faced new traumas: two of her brothers killed themselves, one on Christmas Day, and she lost her home and belongings in the Paradise Camp Fire.

Again, Rose persevered and prevailed. She is now at Humboldt State working on her BS in environmental science, with plans to pursue a career in ecological restoration. She is also JBAY’s newest Youth Advocate, working alongside five other youth who have experienced foster care or homelessness.

Among the issues that Rose is working on with JBAY is Senate Bill 228, which will expand eligibility for Next Up, a program that provides a wide array of financial and practical benefits to former foster youth enrolled in college. To qualify for NextUp, youth must have been in foster care on or after their 16th birthday. SB 228, introduced by Senator Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino) and sponsored by JBAY, would expand the qualification age to 13 and above. That change would benefit students like Rose, who left the foster care system to live independently just before she turned 16.

“I barely missed the marker and that really sucked because that much support would have helped tremendously,” said Rose. “Having to worry about rent and a place to live and how to make money is a huge issue that really takes away from everything else in your life. I’m really honored to have the opportunity to pave the path for kids who are in a similar situation to me. It feels very gratifying to help others in need, especially those who are facing similar hardships and obstacles. I know what could be done differently and what resources could have benefited me and that is very useful when trying to help others in similar situations.”

ECMC Foundation and JBAY Issue Campus Grants to Reduce Homelessness and Hunger

The housing crisis in California has escalated over the last decade, with homelessness touching groups once considered immune from it.

College students are one of these groups. According to a 2019 study, 1 in 5 community college students in California experience homelessness during the academic year. Hunger is also growing, with 50% of community college students reporting food insecurity within the last 30 days. Many of these vulnerable students are former foster youth.

JBAY is working to address homelessness and hunger on college campuses. With the support of the ECMC Foundation, JBAY issued seven grants in January 2021 to establish or expand “basic needs centers” which are centralized service centers on college campuses that help students meet their basic needs such as food, housing, clothing, and transportation.

The seven grants, ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 will assist approximately 20,000 students facing food and housing insecurity across California, from San Diego City College in Southern California to San Joaquin Delta College in the Central Valley to Lake Tahoe Community College in the Sierras.

JBAY Education Project Manager Melissa Bond is leading the effort and wrote a publication on basic needs released in October 2020, speaking to basic needs leaders across California and identifying best practices.

“The pandemic has made matters even worse,” said Bond. “The seven campuses selected for grants will prevent students from losing their hard-won academic gains.”

In additional to critically needed funding, JBAY will provide hands-on technical assistance to the seven campuses, with a focus on ensuring that students receive and maintain the financial aid they qualify to receive.

JBAY to Back Governor Newsom’s Vision for Foster Care

Governor Newsom released his proposed budget last week and it included two important proposals for older youth in foster care.

First, he included a $20 million investment in higher education for foster youth that will allow all foster youth enrolled in post-secondary education to receive a Cal Grant of $6,000. Currently, foster youth enrolled in community college are eligible for a grant of $1,646, and while extremely helpful, it leaves them without adequate funding for housing and food. Costs such as these are commonly paid by parents, either directly or indirectly because the student lives at home.

“With this proposal, Governor Newsom is putting into place a critical piece of the puzzle to make college affordable and accessible for every foster youth,” according to Amy Lemley, JBAY Executive Director.

The second key investment proposed by Governor Newsom is to allow youth who turn age 21 to voluntarily remain in foster care until December 31, 2021. Currently, youth who turn 21 can remain in foster care until June 30, 2021. JBAY worked closely with the Newsom Administration on this policy.

“We are delighted that the Governor is proposing additional time to protect and assist foster youth in California,” said Lemley. “It shows the Administration understands the unique circumstances foster youth are facing during the pandemic.”

While both proposals are exciting, they are far from a done deal. With the Governor’s budget proposal released, the California State Legislature will now begin its budget deliberations and the process will culminate in a budget adopted and signed by July 1.

JBAY will be involved each step of the way, working with policy makers, public officials and young people to make sure the needs of youth who have been in foster care or homeless are front and center.

JBAY is Building More Onramps to Higher Education

When you are in high school struggling just to get by, it’s hard to see opportunities that can help break through the barriers to become a thriving adult. It’s even more difficult when those who are there to support you, including high school counselors and administrators, don’t know of programs to help you succeed.

One such opportunity is dual-enrollment. It gives high schoolers a taste of college, allowing them to take college courses for credit in high school. It also saves lots of money in tuition, since the college credits are free or low cost. Most importantly, students who participate in high-quality dual enrollment programs are more likely to graduate high school, enter college, and graduate with a degree.

“Earning college credits while still in high school shows kids that they have what it takes to succeed,” says Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY).  “It can be a wonderful program, but it’s so frustrating that the youth who need that boost the most are those least likely to know about this option.”

Studies have shown that students who are most underrepresented in college—young men of color,  students from low-income families, and first generation college students—often benefit the most from dual enrollment. Yet it’s a program that’s mostly been used by families who already have experience with higher education. 

Despite the clear benefits, California has not officially implemented dual enrollment as a strategy to improve access to higher education for foster youth. As a result, high schools and community colleges across the state have faced significant barriers in advancing dual enrollment programs, including lacking the clear guidelines and protocols to establish the programs.

To remedy this, JBAY is partnering with the Career Ladders Project to help three college campuses offer dual enrollment to  youth with experience of  foster care, homelessness or juvenile justice. Through this collaboration, JBAY will develop a learning agenda, offer technical assistance to the campuses, and document challenges and successes. The lessons learned from these pilot programs will be used to create guidelines for other campuses to create their own programs.

“Ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to this program will not only give them more opportunities to succeed, but allow them to see their potential,” says Lemley. “We’re excited to be building more onramps to higher education. It’s one of the best routes out of generational poverty .”

JBAY Gears Up for Ambitious and Challenging Year of Policy Change

It’s Thanksgiving week, but at John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), we are already busy thinking about the New Year, when the California State Legislature will return and we can get back to the important work of improving policies for youth who have been homeless or in foster care. In 2021, we’ll be focusing on our three main issues: housing, education and health.

In housing, we’ll be fighting to maintain funding for youth who become homeless after exiting foster care by sustaining the Transitional Housing Program. The program is currently scheduled to end in December 2021, despite its effectiveness and the tremendous need for it: a recent study of former foster youth in California found that over a thousand youth are homeless and waiting for housing.

In education, JBAY will be focused on ensuring the most vulnerable young adults succeed in higher education, which is a critical path to long-term economic security. First, we are proposing to expand access to NextUp, a student support program at 45 community colleges. The program is highly effective, but its reach is limited to a narrow subset of foster youth. We’ll work to modify the eligibility to make an estimated 1,000 additional young people able to receive the support they need.

Also in education, JBAY will assist the tens of thousands of college students struggling with homelessness and food insecurity by advocating for the creation of basic needs centers across the state. These “one-stop-shops” offer students food, housing referrals, help with financial aid and more. The data show that helping students with these traditionally non-academic needs is critical if we want them to maintain enrollment and graduate.

Finally, in health, we will work to ensure youth in foster care have access to reproductive and sexual health services.

Pressing for these kinds of changes is never easy and it certainly won’t be in 2021, with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the related economic impact on the state budget. But we know that young people need us more than ever. Unlike most youth and young adults, those who have been homeless or in foster care don’t have the benefit of parents or an extended family to assist them during this challenging time. Thank you to JBAY supporters who make this work possible. Next stop: Sacramento!

New Law Extends Aid for Homeless Students

Governor Gavin Newsom last night signed legislation that will make California a national leader in supporting college students facing homelessness. Assembly Bill (AB) 2416, sponsored by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), requires colleges to consider homelessness as an extenuating circumstance when evaluating appeals for the loss of financial aid. 

John Burton, former president of the California State Senate and Chair of JBAY, welcomed the passage of AB 2416: “Taking away a person’s financial aid while they are struggling with homelessness is kicking them when they are down. It’s just not right. Thank you to the California State Legislature and Governor Newsom for keeping the door to higher education open for homeless students.”

California has seen a surge in homelessness among college students. A 2019 study found one in five of the state’s 2.1 million community college students experienced an episode of homelessness over the previous 12 months. A similar report on the 480,000 students attending California State University found that their rate of homelessness was one in ten.

Before this new law, students who became homeless often lost access to financial aid because they did not meet Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). SAP typically requires students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete at least two-thirds of attempted courses.

“As a child, my family situation was unstable,” said Tisha Ortiz, speaking on behalf of JBAY to the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. “I entered foster care at four years old, reunited with my family at eight, and then reentered foster care at 12, where I remained until I emancipated at 18 and was on my own.” 

After high school, Ortiz enrolled at Cal State East Bay but became homeless within a year of attending school due to a lack of family support. 

“Although my GPA was 2.7, the fact that I had withdrawn from classes when I became homeless disqualified me from financial aid,” said Ortiz. “There is no way that I can afford to attend school without financial aid. The appeals process has been very challenging and so I wasn’t able to enroll for this semester. I hope to return next year as I have just 24 units left to complete my bachelor’s degree.”

With AB 2416 taking effect on January 1, 2021, California’s homeless students will be able to count on their colleges providing more aid during the crises we face today and in the future.

Governor Signs Law To Improve Foster Youth Access to College Aid

Governor Gavin Newsom signed new legislation late Monday to increase participation in college by foster youth by requiring state-funded agencies to assist foster youth in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A pilot project by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) showed that this type of assistance raised foster youth FAFSA completion rates from just 45% in 2017 to 64% in 2020.

“For too long, far too many foster youth have been denied their dream of a college education because they were unable to obtain the financial aid available to them,” said Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY, which sponsored the bill. “By following the model of JBAY’s FAFSA Challenge program, this new law will help foster youth access tens of millions of dollars of additional aid.” 

While 85 percent of foster youth say they aspire to go to college, just eight percent achieve a bachelor’s degree by age 26 compared with 46 percent of the general population. Only 46 percent of foster youth entering community college receive the Pell Grant and just 12 percent receive the CalGrant, despite the vast majority meeting the income eligibility criteria for this financial aid. The primary reason for this gap is that these youth are not successfully completing the complex and often daunting FAFSA process.

Testifying in support of SB860, Emmerald Evans, a Youth Advocate for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), told the Senate Education Committee that the new law “will allow foster youth to have a reliable support system to help them prepare for college despite the disadvantages that they may face. Having financial aid literacy as well as support to get through all of the necessary steps in the process is vital. As a foster youth, not having the typical family background, I don’t have access to the types of resources that families typically provide like being able to live at home, having access to reliable transportation and of course getting financial support from family for educational costs like books, supplies, a computer and living expenses. This lack becomes even more challenging when a crisis like COVID-19 happens.”

The new law goes into effect on January 1, 2021.