When a child is taken out of an unsafe home and placed into the foster care system, their house isn’t the only thing they lose. They often lose their family, friends, schools, and neighborhoods. Once this happens, a village steps in to help, trying their best to cushion the bumpy ride.
Take a look at a student under the umbrella of foster care entering the Bonita Unified School District (BUSD) and you’ll catch a glimpse of this village.
Mo Williams and Tiffany Merrill, BUSD Foster Liaisons, and a team of social work interns are the first to meet the new students attending Bonita Unified. When there’s a new student, they immediately begin compiling all the students’ educational records. combing through the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, calling the student’s school of origin, and contacting their temporary guardian or social worker. They go over transcripts and a schedule best suiting the students’ interests and capabilities. In some cases, the students require an AB-216, a waiver implemented by the student’s educational rights holder that allows students to graduate with a California state minimum of credits. Often times the students have moved from school to school, and were not given partial credit due to an ignorance of the law. Luckily, there are dozens of highly qualified advocates for these children. Mo stated, “We have a group of 30 community volunteers trained by the Children’s Law Center who are able to step in as an educational right holder”. These volunteers can act as a surrogate, or co-educational rights holder, helping make decisions in the best interest of the students when the parents are unable to.
Along with managing the students' academics, advocates also prioritize their well-being. Each new student in the district receives a welcome packet and a new backpack filled with age appropriate supplies donated by the community, police department, and other local organizations. Aldabella Scarpa has donated at least 100 pairs of shoes for the students, with the message “I matter” etched on the sides. A gift card to the student store is also given out, courtesy of the family of the late Wendy Olsen Rostker. Mo explains that having spirit wear helps them fit in when they feel they’re standing out. “One student chose a $50 Bonita Bearcat windbreaker," she says. "They don’t have to, but most of them do. They’ll get a sweatshirt so they feel like they’re already a bearcat.”
They have several celebrations for students in foster care throughout the year. A Valentine’s lunch complete with In-N-Out, and office trick or treating are a few examples. During Christmas time, the whole district has a drive to give a gift card to every student, complete with their name and a Christmas card from their Bonita Unified family.“We gave out 22 Easter baskets to the students with Wendy Roskter gift cards." Mo says. "The teachers were saying they were outside going through them with this excited buzz in the air.” Mo wants more than anything for these students to know they are valued and important. “On their birthday, they get to pick a Starbucks, and that’s just because they live and breathe and are valued. And that’s why we do that. One student had never had In-N-Out, another had never had Starbucks. We take so much for granted, it’s exciting to be able to provide for them.”
There are many heroes behind the scenes, including one staff member who is single-handedly funding a student’s bus pass, while another is running an after-school math club for the students. The teachers and staff also help with athletic and performance wear. There is a student ambassador with a history of foster care who uses her two free lunch periods to walk the new students to lunch, and will sit with them for a few days until they’ve found their own niche. Students can also eat in Mo’s office during lunch if they’re not quite comfortable yet. Mo takes the time to ensure the youth feel comforted and cared for. There is an entire shelf stocked with any supply the student might need, including a hot-pink Keurig complete with hot cocoa and to-go cups. “Yes, academics are important," Mo says. "I couldn’t have been a principal without pushing kids to graduate, but at the same time, you have to know somebody in your world believes in you and believes that you can succeed.”
It was truly a pleasure speaking with Mo, listening to the stories of people who go above and beyond to help enrich the lives of these youth, and we would like to thank Board of Education of Bonita U.S.D. for recognizing May 2019 as National Foster Care Awareness Month.
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