Every morning before school, 17-year-old Lonnell rises before dawn to make his way to the football field at Manual Arts High School. At 6:00 a.m., he’s out of his aunt’s home near the Crenshaw Plaza and on a bus to his South Los Angeles high school. Starting at 6:30 a.m., Lonnell helps lead the school’s Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) drill team through its early morning paces. By 8:00 a.m., Lonnell is starting his classes at the college preparatory magnet program.
This year, the straight-A student is taking three AP classes and ramping up for the daunting battery of standardized tests that will help determine his college prospects. He's already mapped out his future. He plans to enroll at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and major in public policy and political science, before attending law school where he hopes to learn the skills that will one day propel him to the Supreme Court.
One of the reasons he has been able to thrive and set his sights on attending a top-notch university is his involvement in First Star, a nonprofit started in 2011 at UCLA in Los Angeles, which partners with universities around the country to provides support and year-round college preparation to transitional age foster youth.
According to National Director Paige Chan, First Star Academy programs provide students college and financial-aid counseling, guidance about which classes to take, SAT prep and tutoring. Many students also need to have someone in their life who recognizes their talents and challenges them to excel.
“If you looked at Lonnell when I first met him, he could have been easily written off as a B or C student who was just going to float along and maybe graduate high school,” Chan said. “Now the sky’s the limit for him.”
Since entering the foster care system, Lonnell has sped through a dizzying litany of schools across Los Angeles county: six different elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools before finding a home at Manual Arts in South Los Angeles. Lonnell is no stranger to the statistics that tend to dominate the conversation about foster youth in schools.
“Every time I hear the statistics, it makes me want to challenge and defy those numbers,” Lonnell said. “It’s really discouraging to hear them. I want to say, ‘I’m not one of those statistics.’”
Lonnell’s schooling got off to a rough start. When his mother went to jail, he missed out on kindergarten. At age 6, Lonnell found himself in the arms of Los Angeles County’s massive foster care system. Despite turbulent living situations at home, Lonnell frequently excelled in school. In the second grade, he was reading at a fifth grade level and in the fourth grade, Lonnell’s teachers wanted him to skip a grade and enroll in a magnet school. However, the woman who was his foster parent at the time turned them down–something the teenager regrets. As a result, Lonnell was often frustrated in the classroom.
“I was bored and sometimes I would start talking with or helping the other students. Sometimes my teachers thought I was acting out,” Lonnell said.
Today, Lonnell no longer feels bored in class. He is determined to follow in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, as a lawyer and an advocate fighting for racial justice. But don’t expect the ever-modest junior from South Los Angeles to ask for any special treatment. He just wants to be given the same chance to succeed as other students his age.
“Nobody is ever giving foster youth that challenge. It makes us not even want to try. When I tell people that I’m a former foster youth, they feel bad for me and go easy on me. That’s not the deal. I want to be normal. I want to be able to compete with everybody else. I don’t want anyone to look at my college application differently,” said Lonnell.
Lonnell is now working hard to make his dream of attending college come true. Besides marching with the color guard of his JROTC drill team, he’s a champion debater who also holds down a part-time job as a Peer Health Educator. This sometimes leaves Lonnell little time for a social life or even time for late night Youtube videos with his friends, which is why he’s already thinking about his legacy and long-term goals.
“For me, I have to leave something behind,” Lonnell said. “I don’t want to be just a kid who switched schools or maybe was valedictorian; I want to make school have as much meaning as I can.”
The Reality for Foster Youth, Like Lonnell, Aspiring to Go to College
There are about 26,000 foster youth enrolled in Los Angeles County schools, with almost half of them –12,700– enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Many of these foster youth are struggling to overcome experiences of abuse, neglect and separation, which is why having a supportive school environment is crucial to achieving normalcy. Succeeding in school can also help foster youth successfully transition into adulthood and increase their likelihood of pursuing higher education, a career path or self-reliance.
A landmark 2013 study of educational outcomes for foster youth in the state of California found that 33% of foster youth attend two or more schools and up to 10% attend 3 or more schools in a single school year, compared to only 7% of non-foster youth students statewide. For foster youth, frequent home placements can be tenuous and temporary and mean they have to adjust to new schools, teachers and new classmates and friends.
In fact, the test scores of foster youth lag well behind other non-foster youth statewide, even for peers who are in the same school and classes. In September 2016, data released by the California Department of Education confirmed that foster youth statewide face serious obstacles in the classroom, like higher rates of absenteeism and dropouts. As a result, only about 58% or roughly 1/2 of foster youth graduate high school every year today, compared to 84% of non-foster youth who graduate. Even more alarming, only about 3 to 7% of foster youth go on from there to graduate from college.