Free tuition and $1,256 a month in living stipends. That’s the promise Florida makes to its current and former foster youth attending the state’s public colleges and universities.  Yet only 1 in 6 youth “aging out” of foster care take advantage of this benefit. At ages 18 to 20, instead of attending college or career school, many foster youth find themselves struggling to meet the most basic of needs.   According to a 2012 survey by the Florida Department of Children and Families,

  • 85 percent in this age group are unemployed
  • 38 percent lack either a high school diploma or GED
  • 24 percent have experienced homelessness as an adult

That’s why over the past 15 years, a number of Florida nonprofits, public agencies and higher educational institutions have made helping foster youth transition successfully to adulthood  a key part of their missions, including Orlando’s City of Life, Miami’s Educate Tomorrow and the statewide court advocacy program for abused and abandoned children, Guardian Ad Litem.

And as of 2013, Florida now has a statewide college access network of individuals and organizations  supporting the postsecondary success of foster youth and alumni. It’s called Florida Reach:

“Our focus is on young people emerging from foster care,” said Dr. Steve Rios, owner of Rios Research & Evaluation and a co-founder of Florida Reach. Rios, a member of the faculty at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), is a longtime advocate for adults emerging from foster care in South Florida.  “Our whole focus is to increase awareness and identify liaisons for foster youth at colleges all over the state.”

Employing the collective impact framework that Florida C.A.N.! also espouses for the development of local college access networks, Florida Reach connects K-12 administrators, higher education affairs professionals and youth advocates representing  21 Florida organizations, schools and government agencies, spread from Tallahassee to Miami, who work with youth in foster care.  The big collective goal of the group is for every Florida college and university campus to have a “campus coach” to guide foster youth students and connect them to services they need to successfully access and complete higher education.

The network was co-founded last fall by Rios, Joe Murray, FAU director of academic advising, and Becky Pengelly, Campus Coach Project Leader for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“We work with the Florida College System and State University System to identify campus coaches that would serve former foster youth on campus and address their issues. It’s part of making sure colleges comply with the Senator Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act,” said Pengelly.  Her work as the leader of the statewide initiative evolved out of her previous position at Tallahassee Community College, where she oversaw the development of a campus coach initiative.

“We work with colleges to make sure there is a coach or a person who will support these young adults,” said Pengelly. “It’s someone to go to that will be consistent, almost playing the role that a family member would play, making connections to support and services when that student struggles and it becomes difficult to make connections to others.”

Barely six months old, the Florida Reach Network is an example of how committed partners from various sectors can move the needle on a complex higher education access issue. With Pengelly’s roots in the DCFS, Murray’s and Rios’ ties to the State University System and the group’s mission to help ensure the implementation of an unfunded state mandate , the emergence of this  network shows that with shared goals and coordination between partners, practical alliances can be swiftly built between key stakeholders to leverage existing resources for greater impact.

In South Florida, for instance, In Miami Dade County, full-time college coaches were hired at Miami Dade College and Florida International University through a pre-existing initiative. Florida Reach: Miami Dade, originally called Promoting Academic Success Community Dialogue, has promoted the importance of college coaches, conducted original research on educational outcomes, and developed policy proposals for Florida foster youth, supplying hard data that helped pave the way for continued public support of coach positions and other postsecondary support services.

In Broward County, Rios was asked by DCF to chair a series of meetings among child welfare and college leaders to discuss postsecondary success among former foster youth. After a year under the name,  Broward County Independent Living Post-Secondary Success Collaborative, the group of child welfare and educational professionals decided to change their name to Florida Reach: Broward County, to show affiliation with the state-wide effort, and to begin a formal collective impact initiative  by developing a detailed inventory of services and organizations in the county that aid foster youth in their transition to college or other post-secondary training.  The work of the network has been folded under the county’s Children’s Strategic Plan, which if coordinated by the Broward Children’s Services Council. The current plan is to reach out to other college access initiatives in the county to develop a district-wide coordinated effort to improve college access and success among disadvantaged students.

The accomplishments of Florida Reach’s local affiliates are practical, visible and ongoing. In Palm Beach County, Vita Nova used their AmeriCorps Vista volunteer to launch a college coach initiative, in Miami-Dade, a coordinated grant-writing and fundraising effort results in more than $150,000 being raised to hire two full-time college coaches. One serves more than 350 former foster youth attending Miami-Dade College, the largest college in the United States. The other works at Florida International University, which has about 80 former foster youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness. . The fundraising was sparked by two $25,000 challenge grants by Educate Tomorrow, a nationally-recognized mentoring program for adult emerging from foster care.

The group has also played a role in training or establishing other campus coach initiatives for Florida foster youth at  Florida State University and the University of Central Florida as well as supported liaisons to former homeless and foster youth students at Santa Fe College, Seminole State College, St. Petersburg College, Florida A&M University, Edison State College, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida Atlantic University, University of Florida, University of South Florida, and Valencia College. [s1]

“Florida Reach has adopted Goal 2025 because our community should do everything possible to make sure that by 2015 60% of the students we serve have a high-quality post-secondary credential,” said Rios. “Our state has done great things to support educational success for young people from foster care but  only 20 percent of these resilient yet vulnerable young adults actually enroll in college and nationally only between 3 and 11 percent graduate. We are not sure exactly what the numbers are in Florida so that is one of our next top priorities – gathering the right data.”

In addition to the work of identifying, supporting and training campus coaches, Florida Reach serves as a connector for other groups throughout the state supporting foster youth in K-20 education. They hold a monthly call-in on the first Tuesday of every month, and the network’s monthly newsletters keep far-flung partners abreast of each other’s programs and accomplishments. Later this year, the group is planning a statewide summit of groups and individuals who support foster youth as they age out of the system and confront the challenges of obtaining education and workforce training and credentials.

Readers interested in joining up with Florida Reach or getting a first-hand perspective on foster youth accessing higher education can participate in the next Florida Reach network call on Tuesday, June 3 at 1:30 pm by dialing (712) 432-1500 and entering the participant access code 673626#.

For a complete list of statewide student resources available to Florida foster youth, adopted youth and homeless youth, please click here.

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