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Above the fray, students in foster care get high school fair help

Most of the roughly 30,000 students and family members who passed through Brooklyn Technical High School last weekend had to traverse the Citywide High School Fair on their own.

But high above the fair’s hustle and bustle, a small group of at-risk middle school students got a helping hand.

For the second year, the Department of Education partnered with the Administration for Children’s Services and private donors to host the New York Goal Weekend at the fair. The event gives seventh- and eighth-grade students who are in foster care extra assistance as their search for a high school gets underway.

ACS officials started of the program in 2010 — and merged it with the education department last year — because they saw students in foster care struggle to navigate the labyrinthine process of selecting, ranking, and applying for high school placement.

“It’s already confusing for a regular kid, but if you can imagine what this is like for a foster child, they have a lot already going on in their lives,” said Suzanne Sousa, ACS’s director of development and special programs, who oversaw the event on Saturday.

Sousa said ACS has been encouraged by the program’s early results. In 2011, 70 percent of the 119 eighth-graders in foster care who met with enrollment counselors got into one of their top three high school choices. Two students were admitted into highly selective specialized high schools.

In the 2011-2012 school year, there were 1,367 middle school students living in foster care, including 454 in eighth grade, according to city data. Sousa said 347 students had signed up to attend this year’s high school fair workshop.

The weekend-long event is held on Brooklyn Tech’s eighth (and top) floor, isolated from the hectic and crowded fair on the floors below. The students are given their own entrance to the building and treated to meals, snacks, and gift bags.

Most importantly, officials said, they receive the kind of one-on-one service that isn’t generally available at the general fair. Volunteers were on hand to escort students and their foster parents through the seven floors of students and educators hawking their high schools.

“The goal is to have a less crazy environment,” said Eduardo Contreras, chief operating officer of the Department of Education’s Division of Portfolio Planning. He was one of dozens of volunteers who worked during the weekend event, which was sponsored by Himan Brown Charitable Trust.

In one room, students received one-on-one counseling on how to get started with picking a high school once they headed downstairs. In another room, parents learned about the differences among specialized, screened, and zoned schools and small schools, small learning communities, and comprehensive schools.

In the auditorium at the other end of the eighth floor at a general information session, Kathleen Hoskins conducted a lesson on how to decipher the 500-page high school directory.

“Is everyone on page 429?” asked Hoskins, Director of the Administration for Children’s Services’ Education Unit. “I wanted to point this school out to you because it’s what the Department of Education calls a career and technical school.”

Students who attend the school, Aviation Career and Technical Education High School, can go to work right after graduating, the speaker noted.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said visiting the Goal Weekend floor was a highlight of his fair experience. When two students interested in law there asked him for advice about navigating the fair, Walcott said he told them to keep an eye out for high schools that offered special law programs.

The extra service, Walcott said, “provides a jumping off point that [students] might not otherwise get.”

Volunteer Melodie Ampuero, a project associate at Advocates for Children, spent most of the day with one eighth-grade girl from Brooklyn, sitting with her in a counseling session that Ampuero said could have been more helpful. The counselor was more familiar with Manhattan schools and when they asked about one school in particular he wasn’t able to find it in the high school directory, she said.

“They had laptops, but no internet,” Ampuero said. “It would have been helpful to just Google it and look it up right there.”

Ampuero said her student had her heart set on attending a school in Queens, where most of her friends lived and where her sister had gone to school. She said she did her best to steer the girl toward schools in Brooklyn that would be more practical to attend, but afterwards she worried whether the message had gotten through.

Ampuero praised the program and thought it could be expanded. She said she worried that the one-time service wasn’t enough. Volunteers were not instructed to follow up with the students they met to make sure the students actually applied to schools and made all of their deadlines.

“Applications aren’t due until December and a lot can happen between now and then,” said Ampuero. “A lot of [the students in foster care] can fall through the cracks and if no one is there to follow up on them, then we have no idea of knowing if they still need assistance.”

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