When she was a little girl, Gloria Mendez would dream of walking across a stage in a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma.
But when she went into foster care at the age of 15, already a mother herself, that dream got further and further out of reach. She was placed in a home in Greeley, separated from her brother and more than hour away from her school in Aurora. She changed homes and schools frequently. Each time, the credits and classes required to graduate changed.
“I was like, ‘OK, two or three more classes. Not a big deal.’ But then they move you again,” she said. “I needed two more credits, and I got to Denver, and they told me I needed three more years. I was already 18.”
At that point, she said, social workers and school counselors began to pressure her to get a GED instead. She told them: “I don’t want a GED. I want my high school diploma.”
Mendez is hardly alone: Youth in foster care in Colorado graduate from high school at a rate that’s abysmal — and falling, unlike the graduation rates of students from other vulnerable groups. Last year, just 23.6 percent of youth in foster care graduated on time, down 10 points since 2016. The statewide graduation rate is 81 percent.
People who work in child welfare have taken notice, convening a group that included teens in foster care to brainstorm ways to preserve schools as places of stability for children whose families are in crisis.
Now, lawmakers are moving toward putting some of those ideas into practice. A bill that passed a key committee this week aims to help students in foster care graduate on time by allowing more of them to stay in their home school and by providing flexibility around graduation requirements, regardless of where they’re enrolled.
The bill would require county child welfare officials and schools to work out transportation plans so that children can stay in their home schools when they go into foster care. It would make funding available to counties to work out solutions that make sense in their area, whether that’s contracting with ride-share services or paying mileage to foster parents or creating shuttle routes.
When children can’t stay in their home school, the bill would allow them to enroll immediately in a new school, without waiting for immunization records or academic records to transfer.
The bill would also allow districts to waive certain requirements or create alternative ways to meet requirements so that youth in foster care aren’t penalized for changing schools.
The bill is part of a package of legislation to address problems with the foster system, including providing foster parents with more information about the children in their care and extending services beyond the age of 18 for more people. That package represents Colorado’s effort to comply with 2016 federal rules requiring states to take additional steps to keep children in their home schools and to pay for transportation when necessary.
Those rules, part of the federal education law, didn’t come with new money, and it’s unclear whether Colorado will step up to fund the transportation requirements. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, asked for $2.9 million in the state budget, but members of the Joint Budget Committee declined to include that money in their budget proposal. They said they were open to adding it in later if the bill passes, and state child welfare officials said they’ll look for other funding if they need to.
After the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House, it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.
For now, the state’s 6,600 youth in foster care continue to rack up experiences that set them back in school. While students who are removed from their homes usually see their academic performance even out after a few months, their growth is often slower than other students who aren’t dealing with the trauma of instability, according to Kristin Melton, youth services manager in the state’s Division of Child Welfare
“If you are in a low-interest rate saving account and everyone else is in the stock market, you will never catch up and you will fall further and further behind,” Melton said.
Sister Michael Delores Allegri has been a foster parent to more than 70 children over 20 years. She said it’s often a challenge to even get kids enrolled in school in a timely manner.
“Even if you miss two weeks of high school, you’ve missed a lot,” she said. And then curriculum often doesn’t line up, or they can’t participate in sports or drama or whatever activity was their lifesaver in their home school.
“They lose their high school life, and because of that, they don’t engage,” she said. “We put obstacles in the kid’s way.”
The ability to earn a diploma can be incredibly meaningful to those who persevere, she said.
“Those kids who graduate from high school have that sense about themselves that nothing can stop them,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibility as adults to reach out and tell the kids, ‘I know you can do it, and I’m going to help you.’ It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just get so discouraged.”
Mendez said she was embarrassed at times to be legally an adult and still in the foster system, still in high school – but she did eventually get her high school diploma. She “stumbled into” the Emily Griffith Technical College and met with a counselor who, for the first time in her high school career, really listened to what she wanted for herself.
The Emily Griffith school in downtown Denver offers GED courses along with a wide range of technical and vocational programs for adult students, and it also offers a standard high school track for adult students.
Mendez graduated in 2015, three years later than she would have if her academic career had stayed on track, and walking across the stage was every bit the accomplishment she dreamed of.
“It felt like, I proved you wrong,” she said. “No matter how many times you doubted me or pushed me to get a GED, finally being able to graduate and walk across that stage and having your high school diploma … all my hard efforts paid off.”
Kristina Smith, now 20, did manage to graduate on time, despite spending most of high school in a group home, but she said transportation help would have transformed her school experience. She had to walk 45 minutes to school and 45 minutes back every day, regardless of weather. All those hours spent walking, in the cold, in the dark, in the snow, and in the rain, often made her want to give up and made her feel like no one cared if she succeeded or failed – or even if she was safe.
She returned to her home school and her family during her senior year. At first she was excited, but the academics were a lot more challenging. She had to stop doing sports, which she had loved, to make it to graduation. Things shouldn’t have been that hard, she said.
Smith said she wants policy makers to know: “There are not that many things holding these kids back that can’t be fixed.”