Oklahoma Capitol -- It may have been a while for some of us, but if we think hard enough we can recall our high school years. Whether they were “glory days” or the “just-getting-through-it” days, there’s no denying high school was a special time.
Several years ago, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) implemented a plan to help the state’s foster care children through the sometimes difficult high school years.
The Graduation Advocacy Program (GAP) focuses on students in grades nine through 12 in the Oklahoma City Public School system. Three full-time Graduation Specialists divide a caseload of 50-80 students at any given time in 17 Oklahoma City high schools.
“‘GAP’ is still relatively new,” said Clay Zahn, OKDHS Independent Living Coordinator. “We began back in the 2009-2010 school year, and in just those three years we have helped nearly 250 kids. The youth in our foster care face the same issues we all faced those many years ago. But these kids also have certain other complexities related to being in foster care.”
The challenges can be many, according to Zahn. “Frequent placement changes are one of the biggest obstacles,” he said. “That can result in a change in schools, community, friends, and their overall support system; that often results in poor academic progress.”
To help provide support and service, OKDHS' graduation specialists have special knowledge and experience often only found within GAP.
“The role of the graduation specialist calls for experience and training working specifically with foster youth, including issues related to abuse and neglect,” Zahn said. “They must be equipped to navigate successfully through the child welfare system. This means working in a multi-disciplinary system that includes attorneys, placement and service providers, child welfare and tribal workers, among others.”
Each graduation specialist has his or her own caseload which fluctuates depending on the number of foster youth placed within their area. They must understand and be prepared to deal with issues related to kids in the foster system. One of those issues might be placement or custody changes, termination of parental rights, adoption and guardianship, as well as being separated from their siblings.
“In addition, a graduation specialist needs to be able to tell their youth about educational programs that can help them if they decide to go to college. They need to have a general understanding of tuition waivers, education and training vouchers and the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program,” Zahn added.
All of this requires not only a working knowledge, but perhaps more importantly the time to deal with many issues facing foster youth. Currently, GAP is limited to the Oklahoma City Public Schools. In a perfect world, Zahn says the program would be expanded to Tulsa and rural areas of the state.
“I would like to see that happen,” Zahn said, “but with the state’s budget the way it is, I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
For additional information on OKDHS’ Graduation Advocacy Program, contact Clay Zahn via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (405) 521-3778.