Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou
Joshua Howard shuttled between seven foster and group homes and attended 10 elementary and middle schools by the time he was 14. He was convinced he would never graduate from high school. He rarely studied or turned in his homework, and he often felt lost in class.
When Howard began his freshman year at an Orange County high school with more than 3,000 students, the experience was impersonal and alienating. He considered dropping out before the end of the year. Then a mentor who worked with foster children told him about Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, a public charter school designed to help serve foster youth. At Samueli, Howard found the academic support, sense of belonging, and caring approach from teachers and administrators that he’d never encountered. There was a homework club, where he could get tutoring every day after school. The school employs a full-time “Student Success Coordinator,” who helped Howard and other foster youth negotiate the vagaries of county bureaucracy as well as intervening at problematic group homes or providing academic assistance and emotional support. There’s also a “Director of Alumni Success” who helps all the students at Samueli—most of whom are from low-income families—apply for college and explore financial aid opportunities, plus provides continued assistance while they attend college.
Howard was accustomed to fleeing whenever he didn’t get along with his foster mother or fought with a roommate. Or when he discovered the administrators at his group home were giving him hot dogs every night for dinner and using the county check designated for his support for their car payments. But Howard was so determined to stay at Samueli Academy that he “bit the bullet,” he says, and remained at the same foster home almost four years, so he wouldn’t have to move far from Santa Ana and be forced to leave the school. During the middle of his senior year, when he turned 18 and was free of county supervision, he moved in with his chemistry teacher and her family.
“That was the first real family situation I’d ever experienced,” he says wistfully. “If I hadn’t been going to Samueli, I definitely would have dropped out of high school. Or if I would have gone to some other school, I wouldn’t have passed. I never had anybody telling me to do my homework or helping me when I had problems. At Samueli, they kept me on track, gave me a lot of help, and pushed me when I needed it. For the first time in my life, people were teaching me to make goals and think about what’s ahead.”
Samueli Academy was founded to address the abysmal graduation rate of foster youth. In California, 54 percent of foster youth graduate from high school and just 20 percent attend college, says Anthony Saba, the academy’s executive director. Samueli is the only high school in Orange County to focus on foster youth and one of the few of its kind in the nation. About 520 students attend. The foster youth population is fewer than 20 students, but growing, and the school graduated its first class in 2017. All five foster youth seniors graduated—four are now attending community college and one received a scholarship to the University of Washington.
The foster youth enrollment is expected to increase when on-campus residences are built to house about 50 students. Many potential students who live far from Santa Ana cannot attend because Samueli does not offer transportation. The school is affiliated with the Orangewood Foundation, which provides services to foster youth in Orange County. In the fall, Orangewood will launch a campaign to raise funds for the on-site housing and a student innovation center that will include engineering and design labs, a college and career center, a student union, and a performance art theater. The goal, administrators say, is to increase foster youth enrollment to 15 to 20 percent of the student body and open the dorms in 2020. There is a long waiting list for students hoping to attend the school, which features project-based learning and state-of-the-art facilities, but foster youth are granted immediate acceptance.
Part of every Friday staff meeting is devoted to updates on the foster youths, Saba says, so the teachers are aware of events that could impact class performance. If a student has moved out of a group home and is trying to find a place to live, is despondent because a parent didn’t show up for a weekend visit, or is depressed because Mother’s Day is a particularly emotional time, teachers will be more understanding about late homework assignments, absences, and tardiness.
“If someone is shutting down emotionally, it’s all hands on deck,” says Saba, who is intense, fast-talking, and wears a gray polo shirt with the Samueli insignia. “We all try to be aware and sensitive to what’s going on. The Fridays before vacations are when students seem to struggle the most and need special attention. But no matter what we do, we know we can’t make up for the fact that Dad and Mom aren’t in the picture. We know we can’t totally fill that gap. But what we can do is show them constantly that we care about them.”
Sarah Davis, the student success coordinator, says she has casual conversations every day with foster youths on campus to see if they are feeling anxious, have had enough to eat, or are having problems where they live. She tries to ensure they complete their homework and pay attention in class. Her biggest challenge, she says, is finding stable housing for the students, many of whom move frequently, some so far from campus they often cannot get to school on time. The problem will be solved for many, she says, when the on-site housing is built.
Davis frequently checks in with the teachers, who will tell her when a student stormed out of class or was acting out. She’ll talk with the student, find out what the problem is, and serve as a conduit to the teacher. One student she monitors lives in a group home with 10 other girls and there is constant chaos, frequent fighting, and unending drama.
“She’ll vent to me, tell me she can’t handle it anymore,” Davis says. “We’ll talk a lot about coping skills, how she needs to sometimes put in her headphones or just take a walk. Sometimes she’ll text me: ‘I’m an emotional mess. I don’t want to be in class.’ If I can, I’ll go to the classroom and be present. Or if she just needs a quiet place, she’ll leave class and come to the office here and decompress. Flexibility is important. And it’s important for her to know there’s someone she can talk to.”
Enrique Jaimes, a 2018 graduate, had lived in six foster and group homes during a seven-year period. When he was living in Anaheim, he had to catch two buses to get to school. If a bus was late and he couldn’t make it on time, he would text Davis so she could inform his teacher. When he had a conference with social workers, had to go to court regarding a placement, or had to meet a teacher, Davis always accompanied him. Jaimes, who is slight and soft-spoken, says that during a time in his life when nothing was stable, Davis provided a sense of security that enabled him to remain in school. He plans to study Criminal Justice at Golden West College and eventually become a police officer.
The plight of foster youth has been a special concern for philanthropist Susan Samueli for decades. In 1999, she founded 44 Women, an auxiliary of the Orangewood Foundation, which provides scholarships and supports foster youth after they age out of the system. A few years later, Samueli and fellow Orangewood board member Sandi Jackson decided to establish a school that would focus on the special needs of students in the foster care system as well as low-income students from the surrounding community. Orangewood’s first fundraising campaign garnered $25 million, with Samueli and her husband, Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli, donating $10 million. Samueli Academy opened in 2013.
“I’m a mom and it tears your heart apart to know that children are being abused or need foster care because the parents can’t provide a home for them,” says Susan Samueli, who also owns the Anaheim Ducks with her husband. “We wanted to provide some stability, so they could attend one school and not be shuttled around. We felt that providing a school with small classes, tutoring if they need it, teachers who know them and care about them, would enable them to learn to love education and give them an opportunity to succeed.”
Kimberly Willis, a junior at Samueli, lived in several foster homes before she moved in with her aunt in Orange County. She is still in the foster system, but her aunt is in the process of adopting her. She says the support she has received at Samueli since she enrolled as a freshman has enabled her to thrive academically and socially. Attending a school with other foster children “helped me realize I’m not the only one who’s gone through all this,” and has made her feel less isolated and self-conscious. She has a 3.5 grade point average, is more outgoing and confident, and plans to attend UC Davis with hopes of becoming a veterinarian.
Integrating foster youth into a charter high school is more effective than creating a school just for them, says Richard Arum, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Education and a board member of Samueli Academy. “They benefit from being in contact with students from very different family structures, and the other students benefit from being in contact with these youths. They learn how to face significant challenges, develop resilience, and demonstrate grit and perseverance in pursuing their education. What better model is there for a young person?”
Many foster youth struggle after leaving high school, so Samueli Academy wants to ensure they continue to receive support. Norah Sarsour, the school’s director of alumni success, helps all the seniors prepare for the next step. One of the first questions she asks students when they come to her office is: “Are you hungry? Did you eat?” The school has a food pantry and always has snacks on hand. Her job also involves assisting students after they graduate. She provides moral support and helps them fill out college financial aid applications, secure housing, search for jobs, prepare for interviews, and land internships. Her goal, she says, is to “create a sense of community.”
Joshua Howard, the Samueli graduate who went on to Santiago Canyon College, says Sarsour helped him apply to college, get scholarships, and obtain funds for tutors and bus passes. “She’s also helped me with a lot of personal stuff,” he says. “It may not be her job, but she’s always available to listen. Sometimes I don’t have anyone to talk to about a certain problem, and I’ve called her at 9:40 at night and she’ll pick up the phone and find time to talk to me. Samueli has helped me in so many ways. If I’d gone to a different high school, I might have slipped through the cracks and ended up just another foster kid statistic.”