Bonita Unified School District is setting the standard for supporting students in foster care with an innovative approach they began piloting in partnership with the Alliance two years ago. Leveraging special state funding, known as Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) funds, and our Education Toolkit, they created two dedicated foster care liaisons to help drive change. While many districts assign the role of foster liaison to an administrator who already has more general responsibilities, Bonita is unique in recognizing that keeping foster youth engaged and on track in school is a full-time job.
Recently, we spent the day at Bonita High School with foster youth liaison Maureen “Mo” Williams watching her work.
Tonight is the annual Smudgepot game: San Dimas High vs Bonita High, at Citrus College. She pops into vice principal Joe Hanson’s office. Mo and Joe have an easy rapport. They describe their pride in the school’s “intervention center” – the goal is to drastically reduce the number of out of school suspensions. “The hardest part is changing the mindsets away from suspension and to alternative forms of intervention,” Joe says. Toward that end, Bonita brought the Alliance in to do trauma-informed training for their teachers.
Alex is in his sophmore year of college, studying nursing. Mo remembers when he came to Bonita. He was living in a group home, and says he had lost hope of building a lasting connection to anyone in his life. Mo worked with Alex, helping him graduate on time and prepare for college.
She asks him if he’s going to tonight’s football game. “I’ve never seen a football game,” he says, shuffling his feet and staring at the floor. “The group home won’t pay for tickets.” Mo looks defiant. On a hot pink Post-It she writes herself a reminder: “Tell group homes to take kids to Smudgepot!”
A student spots a Frozen backpack full of school supplies. Her eyes get big and she asks if she can have it. “Sometimes students show up without any supplies!” Mo says. “So I keep everything here that they might need. It’s like Home Shopping Network in here!”
There are 31 names on the list, and 17 are new to Bonita. That means Mo needs to ensure the students get free lunch, make sure they have their schedules, and track down their previous transcripts so they get their partial credits and are placed in the right classes.
Toward the back of the campus, she spots a small crowd of teen boys from a local group home. The smallest asks if she has candy. Mo explains: “The other kids go home to parents, and parties, and all the usual high school stuff. These kids go back to a group home. I want to leave them with a happy end to the week, so I always carry candy to the vans on Fridays.”
Sure enough, she notices a few of her new girls not eating lunch. They are confused about how their free lunch works, and nervous since this is their first time in a mainstream high school. She gathers them up and walks them in through the side door of the cafeteria and stands with them in line. She turns to a tenth grader standing next to her. “Do you like it here?” she asks. The girl exclaims, “It’s strict!” But a minute later, she admits that she’d like to stay here at Bonita High. She’s been through multiple schools already, with a long history of fighting. “She might be ready to make it work this time,” Mo says, with conviction.
She transferred to Bonita last year, and failed most of her classes during her first semester. “I was still getting over being in placement, not being with my family,” she explains. Today, Mo shows her that she’s caught up on her credits and on track to graduate with her class. “I had a chance to move,” the student explains. “I told everyone I was leaving. But then I realized that I’m doing well here. I decided to stay. On the first day of school, I was so excited, I walked here by myself, because I wanted to get here early!”
“Just arranged for the group home to go to the big football game tonight for free!” she crows, pumping her fist in the air. “It’s a good day to be a foster liaison!!!”