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Virginia's 'Great Expectations' program at LFCC proves successful

By Kim Walter -- kwalter@nvdaily.com

Now for a full year, Lord Fairfax Community College has been one of 15 community colleges offering the Great Expectations program to Virginia's foster youth.

The program initially launched in 2008 after Virginia Community College System and The Virginia Foundation for Community College Education members recognized the need for foster youth to have a support system, especially during transitional periods like that from high school to higher education.

Projects began at five community colleges in the state, which included creation of an advisory board, partnerships with other organizations, hiring of campus coaches and establishment of performance measures of student progress and success.

About $5 million helped launch Great Expectations.

Jennifer Gentry, Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement at VCC and Executive Director of VFCCE, named the program, which came from Charles Dickens' novel of the same name.

"It was surprising, but we found that the number of emancipated young people is higher in Virginia than any other state," she said. "After these youth turn 18, they leave the system and any other resources that they are entitled to by law. After that, many of them see a dismal outcome."

Gentry said that for foster youth, moving on to higher education opportunities is their best hope at becoming an independent, productive citizen.

While the program is implemented at community colleges, a lot of the work is done at the high school level.

"Sixty-six percent of the foster youth involved in our program graduated from high school, as opposed to 58 percent nationally," she said.

Great Expectations has served over 1,000 foster youth, and currently has 500 involved.

"We've been cited as one of the best programs in the nation," Gentry said.

Jill James has been the Great Expectations Campus Coach at LFCC since the college joined the program one year ago. James has worked with 19 high school students and 25 in the 18 to 24 year old age group.

"We've become aware of more students than I thought," she said. James has a background in foster care services, and is currently a foster parent.

"This transition time often gets lost with foster youth," she said. "There are a lot of places for them to fall through the cracks."

As campus coach, James lets younger participants know what resources are available to them and introduces them to the perks of being a part of community college. With students heading to school, she assists with scheduling, advising and just being there for support.

"These youth are on their own, and think they know what they're doing. But they miss one step and it starts snowballing," she said. "They have a lack of permanent connections, but community college can help them develop more lasting relationships."

Gentry said some community colleges also offer support groups for their participants, as well as transportation and emergency funding.

"The basic underlying premise is that nobody wishes to go into foster care," she said. "These youth don't have people in their lives to set expectations. They just need someone to say 'You can do this.'"

More information on Great Expectations is available at greatexpectations.vccs.edu or lfcc.edu/greatexpectations, or by emailing Jill James at jjames@lfcc.edu.

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