DOWNTOWN — The beginning of senior year might still be more than a month away but Tyree Johnson already has big plans laid out for college.
Following dreams of becoming a fashion designer, the student from New Roads has compiled a long list of East Coast schools that can expect to receive an application in the next five months, names including New York University, Hofstra, Syracuse, Bryant and Johnson and Wales.
“I’m doing all I can to know what I need to know,” he said recently about the fashion industry. “That is why I want to be in New York, because there are a lot of corporations for fashion lines and studying international business will help me.”
Wherever he ends up next fall will likely be quite a distance from home geographically, but Johnson has already traveled a long journey to get where he is today.
Johnson is one of 150 foster children who have been placed in independent and charter schools through the Center for Educational Opportunity, a program under Santa Monica-based New Vision Foundation designed to put at-risk students on the track to higher education, helping them with not only the application process for the secondary schools, but also in securing financial aid.
The program, which launched nine years ago with a class of five students, currently works with nearly 60 schools in the Los Angeles area, including New Roads in Santa Monica. Students who come from a stable and supportive foster environment, live within a reasonable commute to school, have a strong grade point average or a history of effort towards academic achievement, are generally considered strong candidates.
The center receives referrals from a network that includes schools, court-appointed attorneys and foster family agencies.
Once placed, the students continue to receive support from the program through high school graduation, whether it’s finding financial assistance to purchase books and school supplies or tutoring.
Graduates have gone on to attend MIT, Brown, Tufts and Dickinson.
“We discovered when you place foster children in a quality school, it tends to stabilize their lives,” Paul Cummins, the president and CEO of New Visions Foundation, said. “There is a high percentage of foster children who by the time are 19 are homeless, but if you place them in college, you keep a roof over their head for four years and give them means to keep a roof over their heads the rest of their life as well.”
The founder of Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences and New Roads, Cummins said the program grew out of a lunch he had with philanthropist Peter Morton who said he wanted to do something special for foster children.
Cummins told his friend that if he had some money for tuition, the students could be placed in private schools.
“One of the things we’re hoping to do is find a patron in New York so we can launch a satellite program,” Cummins said. “One of the advantages of New York is that you have a large number of foster children but not so spread as in Southern California and a ton of private and public schools, so transportation is so much easier.”
Johnson said he has little memory of how he ended up in foster care, having spent most of his life in the system. Today he lives in Compton and commutes 2.5 hours each way by bus, writing and decompressing during those trips.
School was never at the forefront for Johnson, but he decided to give the program a try when informed about it through his social worker.
The transition from public to private school wasn’t always easy for Johnson, admitting that he hasn’t fully adjusted.
“It’s something you can’t 100 percent be uncomfortable and the next day be comfortable with,” he said. “I think the most important thing over the years I have found is you have to know who you are and be true to that.”
Johnson, who is taking summer school at St. Monica and interning at a fashion public relations firm, said he expects his life would be different had it not been for the program. He would instead be taking courses at Centennial High School in Compton.
Other students have also expressed similar sentiments about how the program changed their course in life, including Antonia Johnson, a New Roads graduate who will attend Dickinson College in the fall to major in pre-med.
Johnson said she never lived with her mother, who was abusing drugs, and stayed with her aunt until the age of 12, placed in foster care after she died.
A court-appointed lawyer told Johnson about the program with the New Visions Foundation and decided to apply to New Roads where she received a full scholarship.
“If it wasn’t for the program, I wouldn’t be going to Dickinson,” she said. “At New Roads, I would have my own personal college counselor and … they even provided me with a college essay writer who helped me do all the college essays and applications online.
“If I was at Crenshaw or Dorsey (high schools), I wouldn’t receive all the info I needed to apply.”
One of the first group of graduates with the program, Alexis Marion went to Marlborough High School in Los Angeles, starting the same year she was placed in foster care and away from the custody of her mother, who was suffering from a mental illness.
She went to Tufts University where she graduated with a degree in political science. She is starting graduate school at USC next month where she will study to become a social worker.
“It wasn’t until my junior year when I took child development classes that I realized (there was a track) that didn’t include going to law school and being a high-powered lawyer but work in policy and support kids the way I had been supported,” she said.