Expanded Tutoring Aims to Keep New York City’s Transition-Age Foster Youth on Graduation Path

youth new york mike zink table

The founder and two board members for a new tutoring nonprofit for foster youth, At the Table. From Left: Nicole Wong, Mike Zink (founder), and Tiana Barnwell. Credit: Wong, Zink, and Barnwell

A new organization launching in September will provide professional, long-term tutors to New York City’s current and former foster youth. With the coronavirus likely to keep the city’s schools closed or limited in the fall, the founders hope they can help youth stay on track to graduate, especially if they’ve recently left foster care. 

Youth who have been adopted, reunified with their families, or who have aged out of foster care have limited access to the tutoring programs paid for by foster care systems, even though they may have fallen far behind in school or ended up in homes struggling economically.

The new group At the Table is led by Michael Zink, a former assistant vice president overseeing education support programs at The New York Foundling, a foster care services agency. Zink launched At the Table in February to provide free, customized tutoring, on par with what private school students might get for hundreds of dollars an hour. He is familiar with that kind of high-end service because he provided it to affluent families earlier in his career while working for a private tutoring firm.

We’re not just trying to be an organization that supports a certain number of young people in foster care, though,” Zink said. “In the long run, we want to change the way tutoring is provided to young people from underserved communities.”

Parents, researchers and policymakers increasingly recognize one-on-one tutoring as a key tool for closing the achievement gap, especially with the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating that gap nationwide. An analysis of 96 studies about tutoring published this month found the most successful programs relied on full-time, professional tutors, instead of parents and volunteers – a model At The Table plans to follow, virtually at first until in-person tutoring can safely resume.  

Zink left his tutoring job in 2013 to help The New York Foundling design and launch several programs to support the education of foster youth. Initiatives like the Dorm Project for college students, and Road to Success, for high schoolers citywide, have grown to serve over 600 young people. Meanwhile, Zink’s team of 30 professionals got to know the difficulties those students encounter later in life, after foster care. 

Young people who have already left foster care at 16 or 17, for adoption for example, are permanently ineligible for much of what is currently available for young people in foster care, in terms of tutoring,” said Zink. “The system has decided to declare victory and they figure it’s time to move on.” 

He hopes At the Table can boost the grim high school and college graduation rates for youth with foster care backgrounds.

Tutors will be trained to be patient and trauma-aware in their interactions with students. Students will set their own goals, however modest, and receive help with a range of education-related hurdles, such as fixing snags in financial aid packages. 

Each tutor will participate in days-long training in this approach before a gradual ramp-up in caseloads to around 15 students. The organization is hoping to connect 50 students with long-term tutors this year, and about 100 to 120 with shorter-term, quick-fix support, such as clearing up an enrollment issue. 

Zink is aiming to raise a budget of roughly $250,000, primarily through grant support. Supporters so far include individual donors; the national organization iFoster, which is serving as fiscal sponsor until At The Table’s nonprofit certification comes through. Zink has recruited board members such as the founder of the co-living startup Common, and the global, tech-focused school network General Assembly.

Zink has also committed to making sure at least half of his board have personally experienced the child welfare system. 

Board member Tiana Barnwell is among them. Barnwell spent her teens in foster care with New York Foundling, receiving educational support from Zink’s team before recently graduating from her dream school, Spelman College in Atlanta. Along with Nicole Wong, a Hofstra Law School student who also spent her teens in foster care, Barnwell will be a rare voice on the board of any New York City child welfare organization, with voting power over governance issues. 

Now, she said she’s excited to help other former foster youth change their narrative too. Carrying the stigma of the foster care label in class, or struggling with it in secret, can make the journey through school difficult. 

“You might be the smartest student, but you could be lashing out in class in reaction to trauma you are going through alone. Sometimes teachers might just see that disruption and not take the time to learn what’s going on at home,” said Barnwell, 22, now an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Texas. “I’m really excited that there’s going to be an organization to help youth navigate that complexity, especially now.”

Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at  mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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OPINION: Residential care leaders say its time to root out the bad actors in #childwelfare https://bit.ly/3gFJK3z

Was the system founded by white men and funded by white men for racist reasons? Yes. ...But it is what it is. So now how do we go and root out the things that allowed the system to operate that way? https://bit.ly/2DAbPu8