Back on Track helps guide young people in state to education

A determined Melvin Lasiloo of Albuquerque spent his entire childhood in foster care and a number of years in the state’s juvenile justice system. He eventually discovered Back on Track, a program of the nonprofit New Mexico Child Advocacy Network, and enrolled in community college, where he’s studying to become a social worker. James Lawrence/Center for Sustainable Journalism

Melvin Lasiloo has traveled down a long road to get to community college classes in his hometown of Albuquerque.

After landing in the foster care system at age 4, he ping-ponged from place to place all over the state. In ninth grade, he started to find his footing but then was moved to a different foster home. He ended up repeating his freshman year three times.

“I’d always have to restart every class,” said Lasiloo, now 24. “Moving from foster home to foster home stopped me from finishing what I wanted to do.”

After aging out of foster care at 17, he started to make bad decisions, he said, and landed in prison for four years. When he got out, he desperately wanted to focus on his education but didn’t know how to go about it.

Eventually, a college adviser pointed Lasiloo toward Back on Track, a program of the nonprofit New Mexico Child Advocacy Network in Albuquerque, which directs youth in foster care and young people coming out of the juvenile justice system to an educational pathway. Today Lasiloo, a member of the Zuni Tribe, is completing his first year at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, where he’s studying to become a social worker.

The bridge program helps Albuquerque area young people ages 17 to 25 gain acceptance to and enroll in college or technical school. And during their freshman year, it gives them the support needed to successfully tackle their school-life balance.

“The off-ramps from traditional education are very well lit for these populations. Once you’ve hit that off-ramp, it’s very hard to find an on-ramp,” said Ezra Spitzer, executive director of NMCAN, which has an overall mission of helping youth transition to adulthood.

According to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department’s National Youth in Transition database, only 45 percent of the state’s foster youth hold a high school diploma or GED certificate by the time they turn 19. That’s lower than a national average of 58 percent for foster kids and an overall graduation rate of 87 percent for 19-year-olds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Child Welfare Project.

CYFD statistics also show that 46 percent of New Mexico youth who have aged out of the foster care system have experienced homelessness — versus 20 percent nationally — while 31 percent have been incarcerated at least once.

NMCAN’s Back on Track is a one-of-its-kind program in a state that an Annie E. Casey Foundation study ranks dead last nationally for overall child well-being. The coaching-based project, now in its third year, creates individualized education plans for youth through partnerships with CNM, the University of New Mexico and the Albuquerque-based Mission Graduate, a United Way initiative that seeks to add 60,000 new graduates with college degrees and certificates to the New Mexico workforce by 2020.

Spitzer and the NMCAN staff make sure a youth’s basic needs are met before launching into larger talks about school or career. That’s because the state doesn’t have a hierarchy of support systems at the ready.

“Let’s get fed and then have the conversation about getting a diploma or GED or building financial literacy,” Spitzer said. “You may have these immediate needs before we can have that big career conversations and support in enrolling.”

His organization also teaches workshops on emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, financial literacy and leadership development.

“I think what folks, especially from outside of New Mexico, struggle with is not understanding that there’s no system here. You’re basically creating this stuff from nothing,” Spitzer said. “It’s not like you say, ‘Oh yeah, we just need to get them into this system.’ No, there’s actually no system.”

NMCAN’s Back on Track has been a pillar for youths such as Joanna Delaney, who landed in the foster care system when she was 17. She had no idea where to begin the college admissions process until finding the nonprofit, which helped her prepare financial aid paperwork to start classes at CNM.

“I thought college was for smart people because growing up, my family kind of made me feel really stupid,” Delaney said. “Once I got my GED, I had no idea how to make the college stuff work. I didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t know what classes I would need. I didn’t know where to go in order to find the people I needed to talk to. I needed the help because it was too hard to do it by myself. I didn’t even know where the colleges were.”

During the 2019 state legislative session, lawmakers pushed through a number of foster care-related measures. New state laws include the extension of foster care services from age 18 to 21, additional funding for financial literacy training and a statute that requires institutions to give foster youth partial credits if they bounce from school to school. Spitzer said the partial-credit law is monumental for foster youth moving forward and can prevent the scenarios that Lasiloo faced when he was forced to repeat the ninth grade due to the constant instability in his life.

Additionally, state lawmakers expanded eligibility for the state’s game-changing tuition and fee waiver, a 2014 law that allows foster youth to attend publicly funded post-secondary educational institutions for free.

As the spring 2019 semester was winding down, Lasiloo, who was set to successfully complete his first year at CNM, remained motivated to get a college degree. He said one particular episode from his teenage years fuels him.

“One of my social workers told me that I was one of the worst kids that they’ve ever had,” he said. “I got mad at her and told her, ‘I’m going to take your position.’ Now, I’m actually studying to become a social worker.”

The Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University in Georgia is dedicated to finding innovative ways to produce financially sustainable journalism through research and collaborations.