class act Best practices in action

class act
Best practices in action
CSBA's Golden Bell Awards Winner logo
class act
Best practices in action
CSBA's Golden Bell Awards Winner logo
Foster youth get critical support through All-Stars program

In Riverside County, home to the third-highest number of foster youth in California, Corona-Norco Unified School District’s All-Stars Foster Youth Program aims to close achievement gaps for this often underserved population by providing them with a community that supports and invests in them. The Golden Bell Award-winning program began at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in 2020.

The program empowers youth by providing the resources needed to help them self-advocate, make healthy choices and prepare for their future, aided by school site and central office staff committed to providing a strong community of support and connection in order to maximize each student’s social-emotional health and academic potential.

The comprehensive academic and social-emotional program began organically after the high school opened 15 years ago. A campus counselor who was a former foster youth noticed how many foster youth attended Eleanor Roosevelt High. He would provide extra support to them and eventually started holding meetings to bring everyone together. These regular meetings became a model for the district.

“It branched off from there,” said Jenna Mendez, district foster youth counselor/liaison.

Now, All-Stars is at every school in the Corona-Norco USD with programming for all grade levels. As its reputation grows in the community, it continues to receive local support and donations.

Eleanor Roosevelt High, which has the county’s largest population of foster youth, is still leading the charge as the only campus with a foster youth-only class, called the “College and Career Seminar,” headed by a trauma-informed teacher.

“I don’t know anyone else in the state that has a class like that,” Mendez said. “It’s so instrumental for students.”

The seminar is structured so that the teacher can provide more support and connection with students and learn their specialized needs. They can assist with providing supports like getting a student tutoring or providing them resources for mental or emotional health needs.

All Corona-Norco USD schools have a site counselor who manages All-Stars and who meet with students on at least a monthly basis to work on curriculum developed by counselors at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Homeless students also take part in the curriculum.

Districtwide events for foster youth also play a part in building a sense of community. During distance learning, middle schoolers took part in activities like virtual cooking lessons, a talent show, making calming jars and a gingerbread house-building competition during the holiday season where supplies were distributed to students. For elementary students, it included goodie bags, art and science kits as well as virtual visits with Santa.

With things back in person in the 2021–22 academic year, some planned events include a trip to a high ropes course for middle schoolers a Dare to Dream speaker event for high schoolers.

Re-evaluating and reaching out

Districtwide, there were about 280 students in the program in mid-September, Mendez said. That is in comparison to a typical 300 to 400 participants.

While the pandemic has impacted participation, Mendez added that more students are starting to trickle in.

“[During distance learning], it was really hard to connect because the students were burnt out. Now we’re excited to do in-person events — that’s where connection really happens,” Mendez said. “It’s almost like this year we’re having to start over because some of these students, unless they were a junior or senior, haven’t been on the actual campus to experience what All-Stars is.”

Administrators are also building relationships with the families, parents and guardians of foster youth. The district sends newsletters, has created videos and held a parent night to get the word out. “That was a big goal this year because if families know about it, they will push the children to know about it,” Mendez said.

The district began collecting data about six years ago after noticing some students experiencing behavioral, academic and attendance issues. Mendez said that while the numbers were improving prior to the pandemic, there is currently some backsliding. Leaders are re-evaluating the program to make appropriate adjustments.

Still, overall, GPAs have gone up every year and attendance has gotten better, Mendez reported.

“Every year, we have more students graduating than the average foster youth percentages and it’s so exciting,” she said. They continue to push for college attendance and have a relationship with the local community college.

The program gets positive feedback and is instrumental in making life-long changes for some. Mendez mentioned one former program participant who is on her way to becoming a counselor and plans to help Riverside County foster youth. “The thing I hear students say is ‘I thought I was the only one,’” Mendez said, adding that knowing they’re not alone is huge.

“I go around trying to share with districts and counselors because you have to work with these students, it’s a state mandate and there’s money to work with them and a lot of people just forget and they just kind of leave this population out. I’m really proud of our district as a whole and all of our counselors who are doing that hard work on the students and making an impact.”

Bill Pollock, Corona-Norco USD board president, said the board prioritizes this work both in schools and in the community. “The board understands the unique needs of our foster youth and foster families, and have strongly supported our teachers, counselors and staff devoted to serving this underserved population,” Pollock said. “We also value the collaboration with community partners in helping establish relationships with our foster students, so they can be successful after leaving CNUSD.”

— Heather Kemp