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Story about foster youth in schools prompts fond memories from student’s former teacher

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, July 19th, 2013 at 4:51 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district.

Foster youth Cookieey Ropati at Adams Middle School in Richmond.

Foster youth Cookieey Ropati at Adams Middle School in Richmond.

Earlier this week, I wrote a story about the state’s new emphasis on foster youth in schools that featured Cookieey Ropati, a foster child who graduated in June from Olympic Continuation High School in Concord and plans to attend Los Medanos Community College in the fall.

The day the story was published, I received a touching e-mail from Jason Lau, one of Ropati’s former teachers at Adams Middle School in Richmond, recalling her participation in his 7th-grade pre-algebra class, when she lived in the West Contra Costa school district. With the permission of Lau and Ropati, I am excerpting his e-mail:

“ … She always sat near the front (her choice) because she wanted to have as much interaction with her teachers as possible. She was an incredibly kind, extremely intelligent, and caring individual who literally brightened my day every time that I talked with her. She was also an amazing athlete. I remember her tenacity on the basketball court and how she embarrassed the boys when she proved that she could throw a football farther than them. What I remember most about her was her ability to stay positive and her relentless pursuit of life. She was never shy about talking to me about her situation and never allowed it to dictate the goals she set out for herself.”

Lau expressed happiness at learning that she will attend community college and asked me to let Ropati know that he is very proud of her.

“She was such a memorable student and was an inspirational story of perseverance even back in her middle school days,” he wrote.

When I told Ropati about Lau’s e-mail, she was surprised that he would take the time to send it, along with a photo that he found of her. Yet, Lau’s concern for Ropati’s welfare demonstrates what she said in the story about the importance of nurturing relationships for foster children: “It takes a village to raise a child. This is my village and I’m their child.”

When Ropati moved to the Mt. Diablo school district, she initially enrolled in Concord High, but transferred to Olympic after falling behind in credits. There, her support team included transition specialist and social worker Vivica Taylor, along with James Wogan, who oversees the district’s foster youth services.

“I met Vivica on my birthday three years ago and this woman brought me a cake and she didn’t even know me,” Ropati recalled. “So, I’m like, ‘Thank you, but who are you? I don’t understand.’”

As she began to open up to Taylor and the rest of the staff about the challenges she faced, Ropati said she realized they were providing stability in her life.

“I’m not sure what a regular parent does,” said Ropati, who has been in the foster care system since age 10. “But I’ve known them for so long that they’ve become basically my family.”

Taylor and Wogan said they provide “wraparound” services to foster youth to help meet all their needs, including food, housing, academic and mental health support. Although the number of foster students has decreased, they said the severity of the trauma and other issues with which these children are coping has intensified.

Many were abused or taken away from their parents for other reasons. Yet, the help they get from district staff — and from each other in student support groups — helps them gain confidence and thrive, Wogan said.

One girl in foster care recently spoke up after a teacher passed out papers and asked students to bring them to their moms, he said. The student asked the teacher to instead tell the class to bring the papers home to parents or guardians, since she doesn’t live with her mom.

“To me, it was really great to hear her say, ‘I’m in foster care,’” Wogan said. “We’ve seen kids go from being ashamed of being in foster care and not wanting their teachers to know, to overcoming that. But, not all kids are at that point.”

Ropati was one of several foster youth who lobbied the state to keep “categorical” funding for foster youth services intact and require school districts to track the academic progress of foster students and plan programs to help them.

Do you agree with the state’s new emphasis on helping foster youth in schools?

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  • Michael Langley

    I applaud James Wogan, Ms. Taylor and the staff of Olympic for their concern for and support of foster children. There is a need to track the progress of foster children, as many of them do not have the stability in their home setting to monitor their academic progress.
    Two decades ago, MDUSD had full time counselors who were assigned that duty. A functioning counseling system works for foster youth, students from single parent households, students in high poverty areas where both parents work multiple jobs, average students, our special needs population and high performing students.
    Unfortunately, those positions are not on the radar for restoration due to a lack of funds coupled the diversion of resources to high stakes testing, consultants and layers of administration concerned with the facade of so called accountability.
    So, we have to rely on state mandates to redirect funds to basic services like academic counseling for a target group like foster youth. Its better than nothing.

  • Michael Langley

    sorry “…coupled with the diversion…” sixth line, second paragraph.

  • Doctor J

    Inspiring. A two hankie article.

  • http://yahoo Annie CSEA

    Cookie is really a nice young woman. She’s straight forward, caring, loving, gives good hugs and has a great smile. I’m glad you picked Cookie for your interview. She sings too.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Mike, You make a good point about the lack of counselors in MDUSD. This was a topic of conversation at one Pleasant Hill Education Commission meeting I attended, where one mom said she sat down one-on-one with a student services coordinator at College Park HS to go over her child’s schedule. But, many parents don’t take the time to do this and some students don’t understand the requirements. As the district looks at increasing graduation requirements, it should also plan to provide additional support to students so they can meet the higher standards and graduate on time. I have heard that the board’s decision to eliminate summer school has resulted in more students attending continuation and small necessary high schools because they are behind in credits and can’t make them up. If the district increases graduation requirements, it should also consider bringing back summer school.

    Dr. J: If you knew Cookieey’s entire life story, you might consider this a three or four-hankie story. She has faced many challenges, including expulsion from Hercules High School, the near-death of an uncle who was like a father to her, and getting kicked out of a group home in the middle of the night. Who did she call when that happened? Vivica Taylor. If Vivica hadn’t answered the phone, Cookieey says she doesn’t know what she would have done.

    Annie: Yes, I have interviewed Cookieey in the past for my “Hometown Hero” stories about James Wogan and Skip Weinstock. Cookieey was also the Olympic High student rep who spoke very eloquently at the board meetings during the past year. I heard several people say after her comments that they were impressed by her. James Wogan said that he is sure the voices of foster youth like Cookiey were very powerful in persuading state legislators including Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla and Sen. Mark DeSaulnier to support the continuation of categorical funding for foster youth, along with the new accountability requirements.

  • Michael Langley

    Theresa, often the SSC is a de facto VP and handles disciplinary matters concerning students. Many have an Admin credential and are assigned to evaluate teachers.
    A counselor should be dedicated to supporting students academically and with needed services. The SSC was originally designed to point students toward services that no longer were offered by MDUSD.
    Counselors should have a Counseling credential and extensive training in youth counseling. These are people who can pick up on danger signals missed by others before students fall ionto dire circumstances.They should not be assigned VP duties.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Mike, During past budget cuts, I believe the board also eliminated some VP positions. This may be the reason student services coordinators are now taking on some of those duties. Perhaps as the district looks at establishing its new accountability action plan, it could consider replacing some school site administrators that were lost in previous budget cuts. Former Superintendent Steven Lawrence often said MDUSD has a much higher administrator to student ratio than many other districts. But, he didn’t break out district administrators compared to site administrators.
    Part of the reason MDUSD has such a high ratio is likely because there are so few administrators at sites. With the district’s increased emphasis on Response to Intervention for ALL students in its disproportionality plan, an adequate level of site administrators will be key. Otherwise, this will just be another plan on paper that the district won’t be able to effectively implement.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Please note that I have just posted the photo that Lau sent of Ropati from Adams Middle School. Here’s what he wrote about the photo: “I started looking through old student photos and found one of her that I’m almost embarrassed to share. All these fond memories of her and I happen to catch her during a, ‘Seriously? I’m busy!’ moment.”

  • Doctor J

    I just looked up the most recent SARC for Olympic. The SARC list ZERO academic counselors; .80 FTE Counselor (Social/Behavioral or Career Development); and 10.0 FTE Psychologists, plus 1.0 FTE Resource Specialist (non-teaching). Perhaps even more disturbing was that the “Percent of Classes In Core Academic Subjects Taught by Highly Qualified Teachers” was only 77.37% compared to the district wide of 97.17%. These kids also deserve “highly qualified” teachers.
    http://www.mdusd.org/Departments/rande/Documents/2011-2012%20SARC/HIGH/Olympic%20Continuation.html

  • Michael Langley

    Theresa, The use of SSC as de facto VPs began almost from the beginning. When counselors were eliminated under Supt Baum, the Administrator credentialed Head Counselors were made the SSC at each site. The counselors who held both counseling and teaching credentials were destined back to the classrooms.

    This was 1991, I believe, and there was a massive layoff of teachers because the district said it needed to make room for a handful of counselors. Secondary teachers who held elementary credentials were told they would not be laid off if they signed a contract to teach elementary school. It was a scam. Attrition through retirement and resignation opened up enough positions to absorb the reassigned counselors. However it tricked secondary teachers who had not taught at the elementary level to fill a shortage the district had in attracting at that level.

    As you can tell, the manipulative culture at MDUSD did not originate in the recent past, but runs deep and long. An understanding of the history of the district gives one a perspective concerning current difficulties.

  • Doctor J

    Mike, why isn’t the SSC listed on the SARC ? (At least at Olympic)

  • Doctor J

    Wasn’t Supt Baum the one who died at a young age while shopping right after the end of the school year ? Was former Principal Nancy Baum related to him ?

  • Michael Langley

    Dr. J, SARC lists support staff but not number of administrators. There is 1 Principal, 2 VP and 1 SSC at Oly. Dr. Baum did die while shopping, although I’m not sure if it was during the break or just prior. He was brought in to cut, and he did. MDEA and MDUSD were at loggerheads and there was a groundswell of teachers calling for strike. After his death,there was about five years of peace and collaboration in the district.

  • Been Down That Road….

    One of the first things new Executive Director, Dave Linzey did at CVCHS last year was establish a full guidance counseling staff as well as academic support classes and online credit recovery…even in the face of an extremely tight first-year budget. He knew the importance of making sure no students fell through the cracks. The guidance/counseling staff includes TWO Guidance Counselors, a FULL-TIME psychologist, a College and Career Counselor and an overall Coordinator of Guidance and Collaborative Services. This summer we also added a 4-week on-site summer school for incoming freshman who needed additional academic support.

  • Been Down That Road….

    This year CVCHS will begin giving every student a 4-year Academic Plan based on their individual needs.

  • Theresa Harrington

    BDTR: It’s true that CVCHS has more counselors and academic support for incoming freshmen than MDUSD schools.
    However, I received a letter from a CVCHS parent who said her son was allowed to graduate in June from CVCHS even though he was essentially failing two core classes. She alleges the administration told teachers to go easy on seniors. Her son graduated with two Ds that she alleges should have been Fs based on truancy, failure to turn in assignments and Fs received. She is not blaming CVCHS for his failure to do well in the classes, since she acknowledges he didn’t do the necessary work. She is, however, questioning CVCHS’s willingness to pass him and graduate him, despite his failure to do the required work.
    I know of several students in MDUSD who were not allowed to graduate because they failed required classes. CVCHS did warn the student and the parents that he was in danger of failing. So, he wasn’t necessarily falling through the cracks. But, it appears that CVCHS did not follow through on actually failing him when he didn’t do the work.
    Do you know if CVCHS’s new 4-year Academic Plan will be accompanied by a stronger resolve to ensure that students who fail to do the required work will actually fail the class, and if the class is required for graduation, fail to graduate?

  • Doctor J

    When the API scores are announced next month, I predict we will see the difference between the charter and the district. As the district continues to slug like a snail, we see districts like Whittier move forward actively with grace like a team of Clydesdale. The fact that the district has not released the number of Supt candidates who applied is a sign that there are few qualified that want to tackle a broken system. We are now 3 weeks past the deadline to apply and there has been no transparency about how many even applied !

  • Giorgio C.

    When I was in high-school, a terrible tragedy struck my household. It was very difficult for me to get through my classes during my last two years. I recall a teacher asking me “If I fail you, will you not graduate?” The obstacle to my graduating was reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina! I replied affirmative. She passed me. I made the most of that break. I put in my time at the junior college. Even being permitted to graduate, I still paid the price for not knowing how to handle that tragedy.

    I find it ironic that our schools have the nerve to fail students in such situations when the validity of the entire system itself is so flawed. At that point in my life, I do know that I was able to read and write and perform basic math functions, that I am sure I had already demonstrated this in some of my course work. We must not be so quick to “fail.” There may be more to the story. It is easy to fail kids. It is much harder to teach them.

    I have since picked up a copy of AK. My wife and I have a bet of sorts. My assignment is reading AK. Her’s, from a previous unfinished book club “assignment”, is the equally daunting “Ulysses.”

  • Doctor J

    @TH#16 The API scores are the great equalizer — any school can beat their chest like a champion, but unless the API scores are improving, there is little credibility to their bragging.

  • Been Down That Road….

    @Doctor J–You’re right. The API scores should be very interesting.

  • Giorgio C.

    Yes, the state MUST help these kids! A couple of points to note. First, Adams Middle School always has some very special, caring teachers. When I taught at Richmond High, the students from Adams were eager to continue the super positive learning experience they had at Adams. Some of them proudly brought their middle school science note books to my science class.

    Second, I am curious as to why Hercules High School expelled her. If she didn’t threaten anyone with a weapon, then as a Hercules parent, this causes me concern. Regardless, Ms. Ropati seems primed to mow down all obstacles!

    Thanks for sharing this, Theresa.

  • Doctor J

    BDTR#20 Lest we should forget: CVCHS was a “teacher trigger” — which to me means they were sick and tired of getting the short end of the stick from the dictators at Dent.

  • Teacher

    API scores are just ONE way to show that learning is taking place and students are making progress. Many students in our district are making progress both academically and emotionally. As the article that started the topic discusses, many of our students have a lot going on in their lives which may stand in their way of achieving high scores on a standardized test. If we had more counselors/ emotional support for these students, academic achievement would improve. Wouldn’t it be good if we could put faces/ people in our minds rather than a bunch of numbers based on one test taken during one week of the school year?

  • Doctor J

    @Teacher#23 Yes, you are correct, there are many measures of progress. Just like taking your temperature doesn’t diagnose the cause of a high temperature, we know that the average temperature of a person is 98.6. Not every child has the same IQ. But if real learning is taking place, we should be seeing steady progress, not an overnight miracle.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Graduation and dropout rates also play into the picture. With increased graduation requirements and little additional support to help students achieve them, MDUSD’s graduation rate could decrease.
    CVCHS has a big incentive to want its first year numbers to look impressive. Hopefully, the student whose parent wrote to me was an exception rather than the rule.
    At the most recent Contra Costa County Board of Ed. meeting, one man who graduated from Gompers Continuation School in WCCUSD said that when he went to community college, he was told he only had a fifth-grade level education.
    Graduating students who have not attained a 12th grade level education does the students a disservice, but it can make the school’s graduation rates look good.

  • Anon

    If the first graduating class of cvchs to be under the charter for all four years (not until 2016), still graduates those who didn’t earn it, that would be a problem. I have a feeling the student’s school troubles didn’t just start as a senior. Should the student have passed 9th, 10th or 11th grade? The charter can’t fix everything overnight. But they are trying a whole lot more than the district did.

  • Doctor J

    @Anon26 Well said.

  • Giorgio C.

    @Theresa25,
    What was the alternative for the Gompers student? Holding him back until he was 25? Many Gompers students were not focused on their studies or academic pursuits. At a later date, are they going to blame the system for their failure to read and write? At some point, it becomes a parenting and community issue. And at some point, they need to move on. They can do so at the community college. I would never give up on them.

    Now, if the school was at fault, then that’s a different story. Read about the current lawsuit, Palmer vs WCCUSD
    https://www.aclunc.org/cases/active_cases/palmer_v._west_contra_costa_county_unified_school_district.shtml

  • Theresa Harrington

    Students who fail to meet graduation requirements can take the GED or continue to work to attain a diploma in Adult School. What is the point of having graduation requirements if students can graduate without actually achieving them? This is why the CA High School Exit Exam was created. It’s possible the Gompers student may have graduated before that was test put into place.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Please note: The Contra Costa Times’ website has been redesigned to align it with Digital First Media news companies nationwide. As part of this redesign, the link to the On Assignment blog has been eliminated from the Education page: http://www.contracostatimes.com/education.
    However, for those who would still like to be able to access this blog through the Contra Costa Times’ website, you can find it under the Opinion tab at: http://www.contracostatimes.com/blogs.
    Here is more information about the website redesign: http://www.contracostatimes.com/bay-area-news/ci_23711712/contracostatimes-com-relaunches-clearner-look-faster-page-load
    Comments about the redesign can be sent to: webfeedback@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • CV Grad Parent

    CVHS had one college and career counselor when my children went there. But that doesn’t mean students weren’t given info on what classes they needed to graduate or to get into college. Every spring when it was time to sign up for the next year’s classes, administrators went from classroom to classroom (I think it was every English class ) to explain to every student what their options were for classes and what was required to graduate as well as to meet the a-g requirements for college. The same info was in the school handbook. The same info was explained at meetings for parents that were held every year. Parents were required to sign off on their child’s course selections before the course cards were turned in. Administrators met with every child, one by one, every year, to review their final course selections. There was no excuse for either a parent or student not understanding graduation requirements.

    Of course it would be better for students if schools had more counselors, but don’t think kids are marooned in the desert with no help when it comes to figuring out what classes they need to graduate.

  • Giorgio C.

    @Theresa#29,
    I am jaded by the lack of standardized grading-teaching practices. What does “meeting the requirements” really mean? At the end of the day, we are still required to take tests for this and that. It always comes down to the tests, more so than simply having a diploma. Many jobs and the military have aptitude tests. I agree we should keep trying to make the HS diploma as meaningful and valid as possible.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Thanks, Georgio.
    Here’s the WCCUSD superintendent’s July community update letting people know about progress on the strategic plan: http://www.wccusd.net/cms/lib03/CA01001466/Centricity/domain/77/messages/2013-2014/Update%20on%20Strategic%20Planning%207-2013.pdf
    It’s unclear whether MDUSD’s Interim Superintendent will send out any similar messages to the community about district news before school starts.

  • Doctor J

    @TH#33 On the last day of each month [May, June], he has sent a newsletter to all employees updating them on what is happening in the district. I am surprised he didn’t send you a copy.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Wow, thanks for this information. I’ll ask to get on this list. I wonder why he isn’t sending this to the entire community.

  • anon

    @29, Theresa, my explanation is that a student only graduates with a regular diploma if he/she obtains the credits required by that district AND passes the CAHSEE. That allows the student to at least be eligible to apply to a state school; UC has higher requirements. So, students who did not obtain the 210 credits (or higher in other districts) to graduate with a regular diploma may continue on in adult school to obtain those credits, which makes sense when they want to continue on a college course. Students who only want a GED will be eligible to attend a community college but are not eligible to attend a CSU (unless they successfully complete two years at a CC0. Much of it depends on the student’s future plans and goals, and what they hope to achieve. And, special ed students who do none of the above may remain in school until they age out at 22 years.

  • anon

    @29, correction, that is 200 credits now, down from the prior 230 (and much lower than the 240 credits required by many other California school districts.)

    Bottom line: students do not graduate with a regular diploma, needed to attend a CSU, unless they obtain the 200 credits. There are many students, for a myriad of reasons, won’t earn the 200 credits while in high school and will need adult school in order to get a regular diploma. For those who aren’t ever going to even get a regular diploma, they an at least get a GED and attend a community college.

  • Giorgio C.

    I am getting conflicting messages with respect to the intent-mission of adult schools when I read the course offering for the West Contra Costa Adult School program found here.
    http://www.wccae.info/

    Many of these classes are more appropriate for the Community College. What I find troubling is the possibility that some students are possibly forced to take this avenue of remedial action as a result of failures of their k-12 system, that the resources should instead be redirected to the k-12 program. They are in the Adult School program because we failed them, not because they failed themselves.

  • Mike Langley

    @ 38 “They are in the Adult School program because we failed them, not because they failed themselves.” Nice slogan but oversimplifcation. Students are in Adult Ed for many reasons. Some are there because an educations system failed, but that is too easy to proclaim that is why all are there. Our focus on blaming the current k-12 education in the state while excluding all other factors will never address the range of causes. Thus, failures will continue and “snake oil” solutions will continue to be sold.

  • anon

    @38, I agree that may be the case in some situations, but there are many other situations where it is not true. I have seen students who missed a semester more and need additional time to complete their graduation requirements because a family member has cancer, they have to work due to the financial situation of the family, or they had drug/alcohol problems or family problems not the fault of the school situation. I do not deny that the school system fails some children; but conversely, the school system cannot always be blamed for circumstances related to the child or the child’s home life that are outside the system’s control. IMO, this is a primary purpose of Adult School, to assist students these students when life/home circumstances prevent them from obtaining a regular diploma on schedule.

  • Giorgio C.

    @39,
    What I found difficult to accept as a teacher was the fact that I couldn’t flunk a student as a result of poor attendance. I had parents pulling their kids out of school for sometimes up to one month duration. I was told to give them make-up work. A science class. They should have had to repeat the classes they missed. If all I had to do was give them make-up work, then why do they need teachers? Again, this goes back to the question regarding the validity of a HS diploma.

  • School Teacher

    Giorgio @41,

    I completely agree with your comment. There are a variety of factors that figure into a person’s learning, but I feel that one of the most important, if not the most important, is simply showing up when you’re supposed to (with my second most important being doing what you are told/assigned). I find it pathetic that there are not standardized rules set up for consequences when a student misses too much school. The present system (things like SARB) doesn’t really do much until the student has missed way too much school, and even then I feel there is more emphasis on “making up” things instead of having to do them again from the beginning. If there is no real validity to a HS diploma, no one should be surprised that test scores carry the weight they do.