CONCORD -- The odds were stacked against Cookiey Ropati when she started high school four years ago.
As a foster child, she had a less-than-50-percent chance of graduating from high school and a less-than-3-percent chance of going on to college.
But with substantial help and support from a strong foster youth services program in the Mt. Diablo school district in Contra Costa County, Ropati graduated from Olympic Continuation High School in June. She is headed to Los Medanos College in Pittsburg in the fall.
"It's important that we keep those services because if we didn't, most of us foster youth wouldn't make it through high school or graduate," said Ropati, 18, who now lives in Antioch. "It's very difficult for foster youth to go to school and have to think about where they're going to stay, what they're going to eat, and who they can talk to to get things done."
Ropati was part of a group of Bay Area advocates who lobbied Sacramento legislators to keep "categorical" funding set aside for foster youth services intact and to add accountability measures to school funding to force districts throughout the state to track the academic progress of foster kids. As part of the Local Control Funding Formula signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, school districts must adopt plans by next year showing how they intend to spend extra money earmarked to help low-income students, English learners and foster youth.
"California has just become the first state to really acknowledge that foster children require special attention when it comes to education, and to hold districts and schools accountable for their performance," said Jesse Hahnal, director of FosterEd, a national initiative focused on helping foster youth throughout the country succeed in school by pushing for stronger laws and policies. "We're hoping this becomes a national model."
Foster youth typically do significantly worse in school than other at-risk students, Hahnal said. Studies show that 75 percent of foster youth perform below grade level, 80 percent have repeated a grade by third grade, half don't obtain high school diplomas or the equivalent, and more than 97 percent fail to go on to college.
"Here in California, we have some really powerful new legislation, but the proof will be in the implementation," Hahnal said. "We're working with the California Department of Education and the state Board of Education to help draft model plans or templates that school districts can modify or adapt that at least give ideas for the types of services or programs foster youth need."
The Mt. Diablo district's foster youth services could serve as a model to others throughout the state, Hahnal said. Most foster youth services are provided by county offices of education, which use about $15 million in dedicated funding statewide to gather student records and help place foster kids in appropriate schools and programs.
The district's job is to provide the services. But, he said, many districts don't even know which students are in foster care.
In stark contrast to the grim education statistics for foster youth overall, the Mt. Diablo district boasts a 93.7 percent graduation rate. Transition specialist and social worker Vivica Taylor said it's the personal relationships that matter most to foster youth, along with programs and services such as support groups.
Ropati said Taylor and other members of her district support team have become like her family.
"It takes a village to raise a child," she said. "This is my village, and I'm their child."
Bay Area foster youth by county:
Contra Costa 955
San Francisco 951
San Mateo 291
Santa Clara 957
Total Bay Area foster youth: 5,508
Total foster youth in California: approximately 55,000
Total foster youth in the United States: approximately 400,000
Information about foster youth services in the United States is available at www.foster-ed.org. Details about foster youth in California are available by visiting http://fosteredconnect.org. More information about the Mt. Diablo school district's foster youth services is available by visiting www.mdusd.k12.ca.us/schoollinkedservices. Click on Foster Youth Services.