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?