Lonnie Brown is sitting in a long room with several rows of desks, chatting quietly with her teacher so she doesn’t disturb the other students and teachers around her.
Similar scenes are taking place at other desks in the room, where teachers are assigning work to the independent study students enrolled at the J.E. Young Academic Center in central Fresno.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving, and Lonnie, 17, is collecting homework she intends to complete over vacation.
She takes the city bus to meet with her teacher at the urban campus a few times each week, swapping completed work for new assignments in hopes of soon earning her high school diploma. She would be the first among her siblings to graduate.
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Her world has been upended in the year since she switched from mainstream school to independent study.
After years of turmoil at home, Lonnie moved to a friend’s home and then a homeless youth center. She is officially emancipated from her parents now and stuck in a sort of limbo, technically homeless and alone, fighting for her own future.
But in communities and schools across California, a concerted effort to help students like Lonnie is blossoming. The plight of at-risk students, like those in foster care or who are low-income or learning English, is getting more attention — and a bigger share of education dollars.
Last year, state lawmakers shifted the way they fund education to give more resources to school districts with high numbers of at-risk youths. It can mean millions more each year for districts like Fresno Unified, which took in an extra $58 million this school year. About 87% of Fresno Unified students are considered high need.
“If you get a high concentration of low-income and English learners, you need even more money than if you have just a few of these pupils,” said Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education. “This sort of thing was targeted right at the areas in the Central Valley, which has much lower income than the coastal areas and really a lot of districts.”
Districts have more decision-making power under the “ Local Control Funding Formula,” which ends dozens of special categorical programs — like school gardens or career programs — and gives districts discretion over how to spend the money.
School officials across the central San Joaquin Valley are using their own judgment on where to invest. Lonnie and other homeless and foster youths in Fresno Unified are benefiting from newly hired social workers. In Sanger Unified, services cut during the recession, such as programs for teen mothers, are being restored. Fowler Unified has hired more academic coaches.
Many districts are using broad strokes, like lowering class sizes, updating technology or extending the class day, in hopes of making large-scale change.
But some worry students like Lonnie will still fall through the cracks — through no fault of their own, but because new resources will either be spent as funds have been before, or because schools won’t be held accountable for their new-found power over the purse strings.
Lonnie’s hair is folded in thick, wavy curls that frame her face. She has wrapped herself in an oversized bright patterned sweater and is wearing a favorite pair of ripped jeans.
Teacher Bill Larkin is guiding her through new assignments when she decides to talk about her latest career goal: to join the federal Job Corps program with her best friend, Levonnie, and move to Utah when she graduates.
Larkin is amenable to the idea. He knows all too well how motivated Lonnie is to move on with her life.
“For a while there she was coming in two to three times a week” to get more work, he said. “She got herself emancipated, and even at one point was contemplating getting custody of her sister she seems to just know what she wants to do.”
Lonnie has had lots of dreams, changing them often as she revises the life she hopes to make for herself. She first imagined herself as a hairdresser, then a nurse, then an Army recruit. She still has hopes of entering the medical field, and tells Larkin the Job Corps has medical training programs.
She has seen photos of Clearfield, Utah, where she hopes to land a spot in the free career training program. It’s a small, storybook town surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
“I’ve seen (snow), but I haven’t really been in snow,” she says. She never has been on an airplane, either, but says she would get a free plane ticket to Utah if she is accepted.
Utah represents her dream of escape, Lonnie says. Escape from Fresno, a place she calls “dirty.” An escape from her family, too, which she associates with the darkest times in her young life.
“My mom, she kept us in the house so I don’t know how to talk to people or (know to) smile when you’re walking past someone,” she says. “Stuff like that. I think this is going to make me learn how to be around people.”
The simplest of barriers can hold back students like Lonnie.
Nancy Horn, Lonnie’s mentor and the foster and homeless youth liaison at Fresno Unified, recalls her own foster daughter’s challenges. One time, her foster daughter was told her school had run out of fee waivers for the SAT college entrance exam. She thought that was it — she wasn’t going to college.
“The message my foster daughter got was she wasn’t important enough,” Horn said. “It could be something that simple that stops our youth.”
At-risk students face many more significant challenges, Horn said.
Figures collected by Fresno Unified show chronic truancy is highest among foster students compared to all other groups — 32.3%, compared to the district average of 16.9% in the 2012-13 school year. They’re at the bottom when it comes to passing the district’s college readiness exam. Just 4% of 11th-graders in foster care were deemed ready in 2013.
Although less than 1% of the district’s kids live in foster homes, “a few hundred is a lot of students when you consider all the challenges they have to go through,” said Cesar Rodriguez, a specialist in Fresno at the Youth Leadership Institute, an organization advocating for at-risk kids.
Those considered at-risk include students learning English — about 25%, according to district estimates — and those who are low-income, or about 85% of Fresno Unified students. Lonnie is in this third category, without a parent or guardian and no source of personal income.
A change in the system
In many ways, Lonnie embodies the most extreme case of youngsters in California. No permanent home, no money, forced to buy her own groceries with food stamps and chart her own path unmoored from family.
Giving adrift students a chance at success is one of the most important reasons California is taking a new approach to funding the one place that can be their haven: school.
Kirst, the state’s education board president and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, said inequalities between students like Lonnie and those from stable middle or upper economic backgrounds helped drive big changes in how schools are funded.
Since the late 1970s, schools have received money through local revenue, state general funds and a mishmash of “categorical” funds, or pots of money meant for specific purposes. The process has only become more layered and tangled over time, with the state most concerned about controlling where the money went instead of whether student achievement was improving.
“It had nothing to do with student need,” Kirst said. “It was extremely complex because it just got added on with all these pieces. There were very few people who understood it. You could make a lot of money consulting to the school district because they didn’t understand it, either.”
In 2008, Kirst wrote a paper with former California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin and Goodwin Liu, now an associate justice of the state’s Supreme Court, about the issues that at-risk students like Lonnie face.
At the time, the paper shows, school districts — no matter their size or concentration of high-risk students — received roughly the same amount of money per student. School finance should instead “systematically account for differing student needs,” the trio argued. And “the system as a whole should be simple, transparent, and easily understood by legislators, school officials, and the public.”
The paper turned out to be a blueprint for what would become the Local Control Funding Formula.
“It was simple, it was fundamentally based on need, and it shifted the balance of power of how you spend your money to the local level,” Kirst said.
Districts now get an escalating amount of money each year until 2021, with those in high-poverty areas or that serve lots of English-learners and foster students receiving more. School officials also are required to get input from the community on how to spend the money, a break from the past when budgets were largely decided behind closed doors in district administrative offices.
“It was a fundamental change,” said Caryn Moore, associate director for school fiscal services at the California Department of Education. “It changed how school funding was calculated at its core.”
That point hasn’t been lost on many. Early research shows many school districts like the flexibility to spend the money without the restrictions of the past. Most have struggled to engage large cross-sections of parents and students in the process, but community groups are pushing to change that.
Daniel Humphrey is a co-author of an October report on how the new method is working.
Humphrey cautions that the sample size was small: he and co-author Julia Koppich only looked at 10 unnamed districts across the state. But the findings, which detail how districts are spending their money and the struggles they continue to face, are still important, Humphrey says.
“If you really want to see changes in how the resources are allocated and what the priorities of the district are and ways the community buys into it then you’ve got to go all in,” he says. “It really is a grand vision, and how it will play out I don’t know.”
Districts make new priorities
Schools in California have long provided some safety nets for at-risk students such as free hot meals, after-school programs, social workers and on-site medical care.
But schools now are being asked to make fundamental changes aimed at improving achievement of those youngsters, who so often fall behind their peers.
In Fresno Unified, for instance, 10 elementary schools with high numbers of at-risk students lengthened the class day by 30 minutes this year, costing $3.5 million. About $1.9 million was spent on expanding the district’s community day school, $2.1 million on counselors and child welfare specialists, and the district’s foster and homeless youth program got $400,000 to hire four social workers.
By contrast, Sanger Unified mostly restored what was slashed during “bad years” when the plunging economy forced schools to gut programs. Infilling, instead of innovating, has been the story of the district east of Fresno.
“The young expectant mothers program was cut heavily when times were tough,” Sanger’s Superintendent Matthew Navo said. “It’s just a skeleton, a shell of what it really could do someone was hired back to the coordinator position, but we still don’t have our outreach (position.)”
Navo points to three areas Sanger devoted extra funding to this year: literacy programs, intervention efforts for those falling behind and new technology.
“Coincidentally, when the community feedback came in it aligned very easily with where we wanted to go,” he said.
State education experts say change can’t come quickly enough.
“They’re investing in staff, which means restoring positions, and then for the most part, making one or two bets, a couple of new things they’re going to do, instead of wholesale change,” said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis at The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit.
“We’ve been discouraged by the lack of invention and creativity this year strangely, we have a different formula but districts seem to be doing things mostly the same.”
The future of students like Lonnie can rest on such decisions.
The aid infrastructure is mostly in place, said Horn, Lonnie’s mentor and manager of Project ACCESS, Fresno Unified’s office for homeless and foster youths. School social workers network with county programs, nonprofits and advocacy groups to get students what they need.
But even more support is required, she said.
“When you have students who don’t have the same support, their ticket out of poverty is education, and they don’t realize it sometimes until it’s too late,” Horn said.
Soon before she was emancipated, Lonnie turned to Project ACCESS for help. Staff there helped her apply for Medi-Cal insurance and food assistance, and find shelter through the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission.
“She could have ended up being a typical runaway and so many bad things could have happened to her,” said Lonnie’s social worker, Nancy Ognanovich. “She walked in here, she kept coming back, she wanted to get back into school.”
Horn said she is thankful for the four newly hired social workers, who will expand services to foster and homeless students in grades seven through 10. But they’re still splitting 500 students among them, she said, and won’t be working with the youngest or oldest at-risk kids.
Students need more support to keep them in school, such as a social worker at each school site, or at least mentors who can help connect the most at-risk students with career or college options, Horn said.
She is pleased with the new resources, but says she asked for more.
“I was told no, and I don’t know why, but I know (administrators) have students’ best interests at heart. All I can do is keep asking. I do believe they are meeting the needs of students in some way.”
Hope on the horizon
Lonnie trudges up the creaky wooden staircase to the second floor of her apartment building. She is at a transitional living center where about two dozen homeless young Fresnans live.
It’s situated on a busy street near downtown Fresno, where quinceañera dresses fill windows at shops nearby and urban renewal apartments are rising on the corner across the way.
Light from a single window illuminates the dark hallway leading to Lonnie’s one-bedroom apartment. Inside, threadbare carpet covers the floor and faded peach-colored curtains tacked up with nails give shade from the sun.
This is home for Lonnie, a kind of quiet paradise compared to the abusive home where she was raised.
All the residents have their own story to tell. Most of the young adults who live here have aged out of the foster care system, says Krystle Nombrano, the center’s youth care specialist. Some are on probation, others have young children of their own.
Nombrano remembers the first time she met Lonnie many months ago. She says Lonnie had nowhere to go when she arrived.
“I just see her a lot more confident,” Nombrano says. “I see her happy with the fact that she’s stable. Happy with the fact that even though we’re a transitional living center, this is hers, this is where she lives.”
By the next day, Lonnie has changed her mind about the Job Corps. She now hopes they will send her to Miami instead of Utah — the Florida Job Corps has a nursing program she is interested in, she says.
She meets with Ognanovich in the early morning to talk it over.
“I told her I was hoping she would concentrate. She needs to pass the (California High School) exit exam to get her diploma,” Ognanovich says. Lonnie has passed the English portion of the test, but will need to try again to pass the math section. “She told me about Job Corps, she talks about wanting to be a nurse she’s all over the map, like any typical teenager.”
Afterward, Lonnie takes the bus to the Job Corps office to sign the final papers.
Job Corps admissions counselor Melissa Abby tells her she will do her best to get Lonnie a spot in Miami.
Lonnie is now worried she will end up in Utah — she doesn’t have any warm clothes, she says, and would need a winter coat.
“We’re going to take care of you, no matter what,” Abby says.