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LOS ANGELES – Tucked below the Hollywood sign, on a street where tourists stop to pose for pictures, is Beachwood House, a pale blue two-story home for foster kids without one. It's known as the place you go if you are good.
There is no high-security, gated entrance. No 24-hour psychiatrist on staff. Instead, teenagers considered stable and who haven't been adopted or placed in a suitable individual home get the sort of care a mom or dad might provide: Allowances, tutors and transportation to school.
Madison Rodriguez, 18, is one of them. She was placed there after living in more foster homes than she can remember. Angelicah Malone, 17, is another, arriving after being taken away from her mother at 14, for reasons she still doesn't know.
The goal for them this past year was singular: graduate high school. What happened, however, underscored the challenges that foster kids face, and the hurdles educators and social workers have in helping them. Despite the extra attention, their troubled histories are constant pulls. As a result, children in foster care as a group have the lowest graduation rates and the highest dropout rates of all at-risk students.
Angelicah had never known a stable home. The girl with cherubic cheeks grew up living with her mother in hotels. They rarely stayed in one place for more than a month. She guesses they moved at least 30 or 40 times.
"School wasn't really an option for me," she said. "The stability wasn't there."
She doesn't remember any of middle school and she started to skip class when she was placed in foster care. Her siblings were scattered across LA: Her brother sent to live with his father; her two younger sisters placed in a foster home miles away.
Eventually, she ran away. When she turned herself in, she was placed in a 30-day emergency shelter and later, Beachwood. She wants to go to college, she said. She wants a future not haunted by her past.
"I feel like I should break that whole pattern," she said.
The chief problem with education for foster kids is that it comes in fits and starts.
One-third of students in foster care in California attend more than one school over the course of a single school year, and one in 10 attends three or more, according to WestEd, a nonprofit education research group.
There are no national data, but in California, 58 percent of foster care students graduated their senior year. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, 30 percent of children in foster care at any point during high school graduated within four years.
Recognizing this crisis, the state became the first to begin tracking the academic progress of foster students, and allocated millions of dollars to improving foster care student education.
To help boost graduation rates, legislators allowed students in foster care who change schools after their sophomore year to meet the state's minimum graduation requirements — 130 credits, instead of 230 in a district like LA Unified.
Each morning, a van arrives at Beachwood, one of the 163 group homes serving kids in Los Angeles County, which has the nation's largest foster care population. It takes them to the two-room Los Angeles Youth Network school located in a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Created two years ago, it is a continuation school, a place where students work on credit recovery. All students, regardless of grade level or class, sit in one room. Each day, they work on assignments in subjects, from algebra to U.S. history. They also go to art class. For each completed assignment, they get two points, and get credit at 100. If students have questions, there is a teacher and two tutors.
The classes do retain something of what it feels like to be in a traditional school: Kids tease each other. They throw things across the room. They complain about their lunch.
The Beachwood teens attending the school for their senior year typically arrive years behind on credits. Angelicah had 25 credits — less than one semester's worth. Madison was further along but still faced a daunting amount of coursework. The students also must pass high school exit exams.
Madison and Angelicah had passed the English test but both fell short in math. Angelicah had missed the cut off by just 13 points, itself an incredible feat considering she was still working on finishing algebra and geometry.
Their teacher, Sixto Saravia, coaches students individually on what they need to improve: For Angelicah, test taking skills. For Madison, staying on a strict schedule of getting three classes done in her last month of school. He spends extra time with each one on math in preparation for the high school exit exam.
"We have this small window of time," he said in March, two months before graduation. He planned to focus them as narrowly as possible, "in a way that we're not re-victimizing the student, saying, 'You should have learned this in the past.'"
Regardless of what was going on at home, Madison said she was always been determined when it came to school.
When she arrived to class, she said, she would sit down and do what the teacher asked. This, despite a childhood that can only be described as erratic: Different foster homes, including one with tight security, and as a teen, four high schools.
At her last school, she started to lag behind. Unable to sleep well, she'd wake up late and miss morning classes. At the LAYN school, she has no choice: The van arrives each morning.
As the year progressed, Madison began to relish being a senior — the fate of her graduation uncertain. The school arranged for senior-year students to attend prom with an affiliate school. She did her own hair and makeup and went in a sparkling sleeveless red-sequined dress.
Her family, she said, has been an inconsistent presence in her life. If she graduates, she said, she didn't plan to tell them.
"I want it to be a perfect day," she said. "So I don't want them there."
While the continuation school model can help students quickly catch up, it can be overwhelming for those who are years behind. Some educators and foster care advocates say it's too much cramming in too short a time.
"You can quickly get through something but that doesn't mean you know it and can apply it," said BethAnn Berliner, a senior researcher at WestEd who has studied foster care students. She pointed to high college dropout rates for former foster care students, a number perhaps partially a result of poor K-12 education.
Berliner's research showed a trend that children in foster care are much more likely to be placed in alternative schools. They're also more likely to be placed in low-performing ones.
"They're identified as needing something extra and being pushed into an alternative setting that is segregated and has lower standards," said Jackie Thu-Huong Wong, director of FosterEd: California, part of the National Center for Youth Law.
The LAYN school is still too new to have a state evaluation. LA Unified school board member Steve Zimmer, who has championed the school, said it would be understandable to ask foster care students to complete the same graduation requirements as others if they'd been given an equitable education from the start.
Whatever flexibility they get, he said, "it's small in comparison to what services were not there."
On an April weekend, Angelicah stepped out of Beachwood and didn't come back. Her caseworkers and teachers were stunned. The other Beachwood teens had no idea where she was. The house staff packed up her room, and her social worker picked up her belongings.
A week later, she turned herself in to county child welfare authorities. By then, it was too late. Four new residents had already moved in. She was placed in a new home, and a new school — disrupting her education once again.
A day before commencement at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Madison got news: She'd met all the requirements to finish high school. She rushed to pick up her shiny white gown and plan her outfit: Beige wedge shoes and a pretty sleeveless dress. Her hair was dyed a fearless magenta red.
Madison hoped, despite her earlier wishes, that her family would be there to watch her.
When her name was called, she walked across the stage and accepted her diploma. Then she looked up into the stands. Her caseworkers and nearly all the kids from Beachwood held up fluorescent signs and cheered.
Her family wasn't there. Still, she smiled.
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