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February 22, 2011 > Education Court launches in Santa Clara County

Education Court launches in Santa Clara County

Program focuses on improving academic performance of foster youth

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Westminster Promotions

Foster kids often fall through the cracks of the legal and education system through no fault of their own. Many have been abused or neglected and often parents are no longer in their life. The Foster Care Program is raising these children.

Now with the creation of an innovative program, the Middle School Education Court (MSEC), these youngsters will have an opportunity to build a strong educational foundation.

This pilot program, administered through the Superior Court of California at Santa Clara County, is the only one of its kind in the nation. Its intent is to improve the educational success of middle school foster youth in a collaborative effort with agencies involved in their care.

Assigned to the Juvenile Dependency Court, the Honorable Teresa Guerrero-Daley presides over Middle School Education Court. "Education is our focus because we became aware of the low high school and college graduation rate for foster youth," says Judge Guerrero-Daley. "About 1-1/2 years ago, many agencies started looking into this idea, with the unifier being the Court."

According to the 2010 Foster Youth Education Initiative, the cost of not succeeding academically is detrimental to both foster youth and society as a whole. Among other issues, less than one percent attains a four-year college degree and more than 50 percent experience unemployment during their lifetime.

Guerrero-Daley meets weekly at the San Jose courthouse and monthly in Morgan Hill with a team of education specialists, child advocates, social workers and lawyers, to ensure a better educational outcome for these youngsters.

Together, they review the individual child's educational plan prepared by an education specialist through Family Children's Services. The County Office of Education assists with the collection of necessary information and school records for the report. Most of these youngsters are two years behind other students in their level of education. The MSEC team reviews school attendance, teacher interviews, grades, test scores and special needs before developing a plan of action with strategies for implementation, recommendations and follow up procedures.

"In the afternoon, the child comes in and gets to provide input to 'buy' into their educational plan," says Judge Guerrero-Daley. "When I meet one-on-one with them, I talk candidly about what they would like to do with their education. This is not punitive. They are old enough to participate in their educational plan and the program is very fluid and evolving."

To date, about a dozen initial assessments have been completed with a goal of 30 foster kids for now. The MSEC program is still a work in progress and being evaluated by the Research Institute for Foster Youth Initiatives to identify outcomes.

"Hopefully, we can make a difference to get them to succeed in high school by catching up to grade level and graduate high school. If we can give them a good education, it will make a difference," says Guerrero-Daley. "Education can lead to success."

Judge Guerrero-Daley knows from her own personal experience about the importance of education. "I was a high school drop-out and then I went back to school. My teachers at the continuation school helped and inspired me. Teachers are life-changers."

"Other courts are looking at what we're doing. We expect for this to go national and develop and expand. Courts were responsible for youth safety and shelter. Now, the focus of this court is academic success which will impact them for the rest of their lives. This is a multi-agency effort, to make the lives of these children better and the obvious outcome is accountability for all of us," adds Guerrero-Daley.

The MSEC team is comprised of these dedicated professionals who serve foster care middle school students:
The Honorable Teresa Guerrero-Daley, Superior Court of Santa Clara County;
Karen Heggie, Office of the County Counsel; Wendy Kinnear-Rausch, Department of Family & Children's Services; Andrew Cain, Legal Advocates for Children and Youth; Vickie Grove, Child Advocates of Silicon Valley; AnnaLisa M. Chung, Dependency Advocacy Center; Sonja House, Santa Clara County Office of Education; Elise Cutini, Silicon Valley Children's Fund; Dolores Martinez-Peterson, Foster Youth Liaison Alum Rock Union Elementary School District; and Emily J. Bruce, Ph.D., LCSW, Research Institute for Foster Youth Initiatives.

For more information on the Middle School Education Court or how to become a volunteer mentor and advocate for the child's best interest, contact Child Advocates of Silicon Valley at (408) 416- 0400 or www.BeMy Advocate.org.

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