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Marrying a college to a foster care program

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University has been on a transformative journey the last few years. In the words of its president Ron Carter, the college is redefining the urban university. The new urban university, he said, develops viable and sustainable partnerships as well as the intellectual capital in the communities that it is a part of.

JCSU already has a number of partnerships, including one with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with the college mentoring 20 West Charlotte High School boys in technology in the school’s Charlotte’s Web program. The college collaborated with the city and Griffin Brothers Cos. on a $26 million housing and retail development called the Mosaic Village that opened last year near JCSU. It has helped revitalize a dilapidated stretch in the area and provides affordable housing to students and other residents in the surrounding community.

So, it was not all that surprising to hear this week about another JCSU partnership. This one, though, is a light-bulb idea that’s inspired, radical and could become an effective model for helping struggling, poor students overcome deficits and become successful adults.

The plan? Elon Homes and Schools for Children, a community-based foster care program, is moving onto the JCSU campus and the adjacent neighborhood on Beatties Ford Road.

The long-term goal is to create a K-12 pipeline to college for kids from whom that reality is often a long-shot. Whether proximity and engagement of children from kindergarten through high school on a college campus can help reap that result is an open question. But it’s a novel idea that is certainly worth trying. And benefits short of that goal make it worthy as well.

Consider what foster children face.

Many have been placed in at least two to three different foster care homes by the time they’re 18. A 2009 nationwide analysis of foster care placement showed the highest number, 164,479 , had two to three placements from age 5-18; the next highest, 163,493 only had one placement. But 73,758 had an astounding six or more placements.

These different foster homes of course often mean a lot of different schools. Studies show these frequent school changes affect academic achievement and are associated with dropping out.

Studies also show that the problems that resulted in children being placed in foster care often led to emotional and behavioral problems. The children often need a lot of support and help to tackle those problems effectively.

Research has also shown the need for early intervention and childhood education services as a result of their emotional and behavioral problems. But they have been less likely to be enrolled in Head Start and other preschool programs than eligible, low-income children as a group.

And though many foster children have aspirations to attend college or further their education and training, they tend to have lower enrollment rates and completion rates in those programs than other young adults. Financial problems, a need to work and housing concerns often stymie foster children from pursuing postsecondary education, studies show.

This marriage between Elon Homes and Schools and JCSU aims to address these problems and obstacles.

Elon has already made strides in that regard. The program has an array of services targeted to meet the needs of the low-income or otherwise disadvantaged children it serves. It started out more than a century ago caring for and teaching orphaned children. Today it provides help to foster children and those who care for them through three programs: Officials recruit and train foster care parents and provide support services in about a dozen N.C. counties; they provide psychological services to the children and their families through Kids Central of the Carolinas, a mental health agency; and they operate Kennedy Charter Public School, a tuition-free K-12 school serving more than 350 students, 90 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced price meals.

All these services will be relocated on and around the JCSU campus as part of the new partnership.

JCSU, for its part, is already at work on helping youth who’ve aged out of foster care, using its Foster Village Network Center. The center aims to provide support and education services to steer these former foster children through education and other obstacles and into college.

The Elon partnership provides a chance to reach students while they are still in public schools. Said Carter, “I believe there is a very unique and powerful opportunity for [Elon] and the University to combine our efforts to benefit at-risk children with otherwise limited options.”

Fred Grosse, president of Elon Homes and Schools for Children, agrees. “Over 50 percent of our foster care children live in this neighborhood already; over 60 percent of our charter school students live here.... It just makes sense for us to move here where our children and families already live and where we’ve been serving children and families for over 35 years. And it also makes sense for us to co-locate and collaborate with this great university.”

According to Elon officials, the move removes transportation obstacles that some low-income families faced with Elon schools and services located in south Charlotte. And with the Kennedy charter school relocated to JCSU, students will now have direct exposure to higher education, and access to several JCSU facilities, programs and mentors. Already, the entire JCSU football team has volunteered to engage with the students, Grosse said.

Grosse acknowledged that, at least early on, “all won’t go on to get a university degree, most might not.”

That might be a goal but not an expectation. Right now, only 10 percent of children in the welfare system ever complete a four-year degree, Grosse said.

But the partnership is expected to boost students’ academic performance, “to improve grade to grade” and for most to leave with at least a high school diploma. A “high school diploma is huge for some of our students,” Grosse said.

Carter said his hope is that students not only get that high school diploma but that “when they graduate, they have aspirations to go on to community college or college, or enter the workforce knowing that they have such a quality of education” that they can succeed.

All are good goals to aim for. If achieved, this community as well as the children involved will greatly benefit.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com
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