Thursday, August 28, 2008

ACE Scholar Services

University fosters care for foster students
New program guarantees admission to qualifying foster care graduates
Rodriguez, Nelsy. North County Times, Aug. 14, 2008.

TEMECULA ---- Having moved among nine foster homes since she was 11, it was only natural that Kerri Pierce's first concern upon entering college would be housing.

"As soon as they leave the foster system, (foster children) don't have anywhere to go," said Pierce, a 19-year-old former foster child who came from a family of six children and has remained together with her twin sister, Corri Pierce.

Now the young women attend Cal State San Bernardino and, during the school year, live in a small two-bedroom house on the campus, which Kerri Pierce says is a lot more convenient.

"We found it very quiet. There were no kids running around," she said.

Pierce, who is entering her junior year at the California State University, could have benefited from a program signed into action this week between the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services and Cal State San Marcos.

The program, dubbed ACE Scholar Services, will form close ties with students in the county foster care system to help them apply for college, guarantee their admission, support them emotionally and assist them financially throughout their years of higher education to increase their chances of graduating.

"(Education) has been the one thing in life that no one could take away from me," Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone said during the Tuesday press conference held for the signing of the agreement between the county and the school. "Foster children are basically off on their own, unfortunately. This opens the gates toward higher education for our underprivileged youth."

More than 4,000 youth are enrolled in the county's foster care system. Each year, about 550 "age out" of the system at 18, county officials said. At that point, the teens suddenly find themselves on their own.

Jim Mickelson, who will run the ACE program for Cal State San Marcos, said the school typically receives about 10,000 applications a year and admits about 1,400 new students.

Through the program, any person enrolled in county foster care who completes college prerequisite courses will automatically be accepted as one of the 1,400 to join the San Marcos student body.

"Many of them don't think it's possible," Mickelson said. "But college is possible."

Foster care students also will be guided through the application process and receive help securing federal and university grants, which can help offset the expense of attending school.

Pierce, who attends Cal State San Bernardino, said she welcomes the day when more people in her situation are helped to achieve all they can.

After her mother left home, Pierce and her five natural siblings remained with their father, she said. When he couldn't care for them, the siblings were split up and sent through different homes. An older sister stayed with a grandmother, a younger sister moved in with an aunt. Several younger siblings were taken to Oregon, and Pierce and her twin remained in the foster system until landing with their most recent caregivers in 2006.

Though the chaos of moving through four different high schools might have dampened some students' dedication to academic success, Pierce and her sister stuck together to work on improving their grades.

And though they had missed out on the years of discussion that many families engage in before a graduate ships off to college, by the time the Pierce sisters reached their last foster home, the two were already mentally college-bound. Pierce said that was largely because she entered an independent living program that helped her search for grants and fill out college applications, which will be one of the services offered by ACE.

But students in her position could use much more help, she said.

"If they're the only people trying to keep their dreams alive, no one's going to help them out with it," Pierce said.

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