Santa Barbara County faces huge challenges with foster children, especially as they reach their teenage years and it becomes almost impossible to find homes for them. To that end, Wendy Read has been working to create the Children’s Project, which will be California’s first residential charter school for foster children. Funded in part by a grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation, the school will be located on 60 acres of oak-studded hills north of Los Alamos.
LD: How did the Children’s Project get started?
WR: When I was 20 years old, I … was a volunteer with foster kids. I followed a young boy from the time he was 6 to the time he was 18, … to 27 different placements, including prison, where he spent the last six years of his life.
I was an actress at the time (appearing on TV shows such as The A-Team, Knight Rider and the North and South miniseries) … but I realized that my real passion wasn’t acting, it was advocating for change in the foster system. That’s what drove me to go to law school. … There’s really not a day that goes by that I don’t think of that boy and … what would have made his life different. What could we do that would change the trajectory of people like him who are now following through the system.
LD: How did the idea for a boarding school come about?
WR: We received funding from the Orfaela Family Foundation, which allowed us to start the steering company and we met once a month … It was all of us sitting around the table saying who are these kids, why are we sending them out of county and how do we bring them what they need.
LD: So at that point there was no specific agenda to build a school for foster kids?
WR: Oh, no. … We just said who are the kids, why are we sending them out of town and how do we bring them home.
… We were surprised at how many times our kids moved and how many times they moved out of town, and how many times they were separated from their siblings. … We were surprised at how many referrals were made … It made us say we don’t just want to bring them home. We want to bring them home and do a better job of raising them than their parents were.
LD: Why foster children?
WR: There are so many kids to be helped in the county, but there’s a big difference between foster kids and at-risk kids and homeless kids or kids who need help. Maybe it’s because I’m an attorney that I see it that way, but we elected the judge who sits on the bench and says to a parent, “You know what, you’re not doing a good job of parenting your children. Based on the values that we as a society have created, you’re not doing a good job. We’re going to take your children away from you and care for them ourselves until you clean up your act.” And in that moment, we not only have a moral responsibility to care for these kids, but we have a legal responsibility to care for them. … We become the parents … fewer than 50 percent of them graduate from high school nationwide, so we’re doing a pretty bad job of parenting.
LD: Are there other models for this type of school?
WR: A program in San Diego called San Pasqual Academy, which is a boarding school for foster youth, opened our eyes to what is possible. We asked for their advice, and they said they would start in seventh grade, so you could do two full years of remedial work. They talked about starting it as a charter school … to have the flexibility to say if you get reunited with your family or you get adopted, you can still be a day student. The charter school gives us that flexibility.
LD: What about the idea that being in a home is best?
WR: All we’re trying to do is provide an option for some kids who don’t want to be in a foster home or can’t be placed in a foster home, they can’t reunify with their families and would like to get a great education.
… Right now the judge has to say to a parent, “You have six months or a year to clean up your act and you get your child back” — it’s either/or. You clean up and you get your child back 24/7 or you fail and all rights are terminated. We really feel like one of the advantages of the campus is that a parent can start the healing process and still maintain a connection to the child … which is best for the kid if he wants to be connected, but not having the responsibility of having the child live with them, which is what caused those problems in the first place.
My whole thing is I want to stop arguing about where the pillow is at night and make sure the desk is in the same place every day.
LD: What’s the timetable for opening?
WR: With an aggressive timeline, we’re hoping to open in September 2010.
LD: And the idea is to raise them up through better education?
WR: Exactly. Some of these families, it never occurs to them that the kids could go to college. You start talking about these things and it changes the whole family dynamic and then it changes the whole community dynamic. And then we talk about the ripple effects of this campus … I think this is really an opportunity for the entire community of Santa Barbara to do something that’s going to change things on a national level. That’s what seems to be appealing to people. … The idea is education being a way to solve a problem that we all know is there.