Renee Vorrises and Dorothy Burge, foster youth educational liaisons at the San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE), see their primary role as supporting communication and collaboration to help foster youths succeed in school.
Available to assist any of the 520 students from preschool through college age who reach Child Welfare Services each year, they are in constant communication with the students and their foster parents, teachers, social workers, counselors and, in some cases, probation officers.
Their office is at the San Mateo Children’s Receiving Home on Tower Road in San Mateo, adjacent to Gateway Community School and the Youth Services Center. Built three years ago, the Receiving Home still has a new gleam with its warm yellow paint, inviting common areas, kitchen and private rooms. The facility, built with the help of San Mateo County Human Services funds, the Youth Services Bond and the County Manager's Fund, serves as an intake center and temporary shelter for foster youth awaiting placement in foster homes.
“Lots of kids experience a sense of loss when they are removed from their homes,” said Vorrises. “They have a hard time focusing on school because of the stress and may act out. Some have never been assessed for special needs, and about 37 percent require special education services."
Through communicating with the principal, teachers and counselors, Vorrises and Burge raise awareness about the student’s needs and get them the help they require, whether it be tutoring, mentoring or serving as an advocate at IEP meetings or suspension hearings. Throughout the school year, they see to it that students have backpacks, school supplies and clothing.
“We facilitate communication with all the agencies, whether it be foster parents, social services or school personnel, and ensure everyone is working as a team,” said Burge. “Communicating with the kids and having a connection is key. They know us and trust us to assist them with their educational needs.”
The Foster Youth Liaison Program at the County Office came into being as a result of the passage of AB 490 in 2003. The law required Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) to designate a foster care education liaison to ensure proper placement, transfer and enrollment in school for foster youth.
The intent of the law was to ensure equal access and opportunities for foster youth, to promote their academic achievement and to provide them with the same academic resources, services and extracurricular and enrichment activities as all other children. The law made clear that education and school placement decisions are to be dictated by the best interest of the child, and that these students have the right to a stable school environment.
“As a result of this law, social workers think about a student’s education needs before making a placement in a foster home,” said Burge.
When students are placed in foster care, Vorrises and Burge make every effort to keep them in their school of origin, even if it requires arranging transportation.
“In the past, many of the foster youth didn’t want to go to school,” said Vorrises. “That is less of an issue as we advocate for a youth’s right to remain in their school of origin and build a support network at the school site.”
The liaisons also help the students get involved in extracurricular activities and after-school programs.
“They tend to do better academically when they are engaged in activities outside of class," said Burge.
Sometimes, no matter what supports are put in place, the current school placement is just not working. In that situation, the liaisons will work with the youth, guardian and administrator to find alternative placements, such as continuation high school, a community school program or independent study.
SMCOE’s Foster Youth Liaison Program has proven successful. Last year, the graduation rate for foster youth in the county was 78 percent, compared to the statewide rate of 50 percent.
”It’s such a joy to attend their graduation,” said Burge. “Especially after having witnessed all the ups and downs.”
Last year, SMCOE staff adopted the Foster Youth Liaison Program for their holiday giving campaign and contributed $2,000. Foster youth in the county program created their holiday wish lists and with these dollars raised, Vorrises and Burge were able to buy gifts and grant many holiday wishes. Once again this year, SMCOE staff, along with other community organizations in the county, contributed to holiday drives, helping make holiday wishes come true.