Lillie long dreamed of going to St. John’s College, a unique school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that bases its curriculum on what it calls “The Great Books.” History, language, math, philosophy, you name it — all are taught through foundational texts that begin with Homer’s “Iliad” and continue through time.
Lillie, whose gender pronouns are they/them, wants to be an attorney for foster youth like themself. They were told about the school by their own foster care attorney, who had a friend who swore by St. John’s as what best prepared her for law school.
Lillie made it happen and was admitted to St. John’s. Then, the coronavirus struck. Their carefully laid plans flew out the window.
“It’s been such a mess,” Lillie said.
St. John’s campus is now only open to international students who may attend in-person classes. That means Lillie would be cut off from on-campus housing and a meal plan, both of which were covered by the college. Their 21st birthday is a couple months away, which means they’ll lose the $703 they receive each month from Washington state through its extended foster care program.
To complicate matters further, Lillie’s laptop lacks an expensive processor that could run Zoom, the program they’ll have to use for classes when their freshman year at St. John’s begins.
“I’m terrified,” Lillie said. “I’m really terrified.”
Lillie is far from alone with concerns about the coming school year.
According to a survey by Treehouse, a nonprofit that serves youth in foster care, 44 percent of foster and relative caregivers reported they lack support to meet the educational needs of youth in their homes during COVID. Roughly a quarter of young people in foster care have lost academic progress because of the shift to distance learning.
Professionals involved in helping homeless students, whose experience is more similar to foster youth than the average student, say they expect achievement gaps to grow into yawning chasms that will swallow more and more young people as the COVID-created economic downturn continues and families lose their housing.
Children in wealthy families may still struggle during the school year, but they face fewer obstacles. Many will have the new technology and solid internet access they need to get through the year and, in some cases, private tutors to help them stay up to speed.
But foster youth and homeless students, who have lower educational achievement rates in normal times, lack many of those supports. Some, like Lillie, will face additional obstacles because school is where they get many of their meals.
The state and local school districts aim to cover some of those gaps. The CARES Act, a law passed in March 2020, pumped almost $2 trillion in aid to households, businesses and local governments in an attempt to plaster over some of the economic damage caused when the virus shut down businesses, blasting a hole in local government budgets and people’s wallets.
In mid-August, Washington state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal announced that $8 million in CARES Act funding would be available to help students with internet access issues, which families can access through their school districts.
Another $195 million from the CARES Act is targeted through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. School districts have discretion on how to spend those funds, but the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) recommends that the funds first be used to “support students furthest from educational justice,” said Ben King, communications consultant with OSPI.
Prior to the pandemic, every school district was required to have a Foster Care Liaison to ensure that districts were working with child welfare, service providers and contractors, much like the liaisons for homeless students offered through the federal McKinney Vento Act.
That money will help shore up students in Washington’s public schools, but it’s unlikely to do much for a student like Lillie, who will be starting their freshman year after two years in the state’s community college system. Treehouse, however, will continue to offer them services until they’re 26 years old through its Graduation Success program, which is in its third pilot year.
Lillie works with Claire Smith, a Launch Success Coach with Treehouse, who checks in at least once a month to make sure that they’re doing all right. When Lillie’s housing situation got disrupted — they had signed a short lease, thinking that they would be moving to Santa Fe — Smith stepped in and helped arrange the move to a friend’s house and get Lillie a bed.
The coronavirus has made even that more difficult, since Smith can’t meet with Lillie in person, but they are able to text and check in digitally.
Despite the upheaval and uncertainty, Lillie is optimistic for the future.
“There are a lot of funds to access to help me through college through Treehouse, and I have a good support system outside of state help,” Lillie said.
A week after Real Change spoke with Lillie, they made the difficult decision to wait until at least next fall to accept their admission to St. John’s College. Another dream deferred, because of the coronavirus.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Sept. 2-8, 2020 issue.