Most Read: Local

Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 02:18 PM ET, 11/23/2011

Haven for struggling kids

Although I usually focus on typical Washington-area students who have many advantages, on this Thanksgiving, I want to introduce Catherine, who has a different story.

Her biological father abandoned the family. Her biological mother struggled, so Catherine was raised by a foster family who eventually adopted her. Karen Budd, an activist Fairfax County parent and volunteer tutor who told me about Catherine, said that did not save the girl from a tumultuous adolescence.

Her serious problems began in middle school when she physically lashed out at her adoptive father. “Thus began a pattern of anger, rebellion, running away and self-harm,” Budd said.

At school, group homes and behavior centers, Catherine was unfocused, angry and incorrigible. Some administrators told her she was lazy and dumb.

Then she was assigned to the Youth for Tomorrow home in the Manassas area, founded in 1986 by Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.

As a country, we do a better job with our best students — the kind found in abundance in the Washington suburbs — than we do with our worst. Most students in the bottom halves of our classes drop out before high school graduation. We are a mostly middle-class country, but our substantial minority of poor youths must deal not only with gaps in their reading, writing and math skills but terrible conditions at home.

I had never heard of Youth for Tomorrow until Budd told me about it. There are hundreds of private providers like it across the country. They make big differences but not with enough kids to get any attention from the mainstream media.

“YFT is a safe haven for children and teenagers 12 through 18, who have seen and experienced unthinkable amounts of abuse, despair and turmoil,” Budd said. “The organization lifts up these children from abusive homes, broken communities and desperate lives and ultimately gives them a second chance, frequently a last chance, at life.

“Gibbs wanted a more holistic approach that would revitalize the children’s mind, soul and body,” she said. “The strategy of three integrated components — residential, education and counseling — coupled with a godly campus environment, provides for the comprehensive experience that has made a difference in these adolescents’ lives.”

The YFT school has a 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio. It provides a scholarship of $10,000 a year for four years to every student who enrolls in college, trade school or an apprenticeship program. There is a transition program that pays the students’ rent.

Budd said YFT and its chief executive Gary Jones are careful in their selection of house parents and therapists, because “many children are here as they have escaped from abuse from the very institutions into which they were placed by our court or social services system.”

Many of them, such as Catherine, prove to be quite bright despite their spotty academic records. Budd tutored Catherine in geometry and Algebra II.

Catherine “mastered a particularly complicated multi-step problem. I saw her maneuver confidently through all the steps required to arrive at a correct answer to a problem so convoluted and obtuse that I felt a [Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology] student would have had difficulty with it,” Budd said. “I feel confident she has the ability to do calculus.”

Budd saw Catherine right after a difficult test in inscribed angles: tangents, secants and circles. It was a YFT fundraising dinner. Catherine looked stunning in her tailored black suit. She told Budd with a smile that she had gotten an 85 percent on the test. She is doing well in nurses’ assistant training. Jones has arranged for Catherine to enroll at Northern Virginia Community College as part of the transition program.

Helping more Catherines means happy Thanksgivings for many more people and the children they have in the future.

By  |  02:18 PM ET, 11/23/2011

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company