Few people make it to college after growing up like Carida Ward, whose mother sold her at age 8 to a pedophile she didn’t escape from for five years. Or like Tiffany Brown, who was put in a lockdown facility as punishment for running away from home.
But the two are excelling at City College of San Francisco because of a program that has helped hundreds of former foster children on campus for seven years — and which is now in crisis itself as college officials alienate private funders, fail to provide timely services, and treat some students with surliness. Until recently, the Guardian Scholars at City College was reknowned for its warm approach to vulnerable students.
Now it’s out of money because no one followed up with funders after its longtime coordinator left in June.
“The students here are suffering, and we’re not getting our needs met,” Ward told the student government Wednesday as she, Brown and others spoke on behalf of the 130 students in the program. They asked student leaders to join them in urging college officials to save the program.
Guardian Scholars is supposed to serve as a supportive family for college students who never had one of their own. Across the country, foster children wind up in prison more often than in college classrooms, research shows. The program aims to change that with academic counseling, vouchers for books and transportation, access to an emergency housing fund, and a coordinator who not only woos donors but lends a helpful ear to students in need. Similar programs exist on campuses across the state.
On Tuesday, City College students arrived at the Guardian Scholar office at the main campus on Phelan Avenue and found a sign saying it was closed until November. Students demanded to know why. So did funders, and the doors were reopened within hours.
'Trying to fix it’
College officials called it a mistake. “At this point, City College is committed to trying to fund the program,” said Elizabeth Coria, dean of financial aid and student success programs. “The program is not falling apart. We’re trying to fix it.”
Ward, 27, and Brown, 22, became alarmed over the summer when students were assured that an academic counselor would be available to advise them — but no one showed up. This fall, more than 60 Guardian Scholars arrived at the bookstore and were told their vouchers had expired.
“Nobody told us about the deadline,” Brown said. “As you can see, there’s no communication.”
The vouchers had also been sliced in half, to $100 from $200.
Transportation vouchers — which many Guardian Scholars depend on to get to and from school — arrived three weeks late.
The Guardian Scholars also blocked Ward’s access to emergency housing money this month after she and her 5-year-old daughter, who had been couch-surfing, became homeless. Ward said the program’s new coordinator at first told her — within earshot of other students — that she didn’t qualify because she had received help twice in the past. The coordinator then said that at 27, Ward was too old for help, she said.
Ward promptly called Coria, the woman’s supervisor, to complain.
“Not once did I hear, 'Carida, don’t worry. Focus on school. You graduate next semester, and you’ve come so far,’” Carida said, her voice breaking with emotion.
The current troubles began in June, after the program’s longtime coordinator, Michael McPartlin, quit in frustration. He had always known where to find funding or emergency housing for a student in trouble. Students adored him. So did funders, who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. No Guardian Scholar was denied services even if they were in their late 20s; McPartlin knew that foster children often take a long time to get to college. More than 100 Guardian Scholars have completed City College, with 60 transferring to a university. Of those, 30 have completed their degrees, and a few have taken a master’s.
McPartlin, 55, said his frustrations began long before he stepped down at the end of the spring semester, and that he had to wrestle with college officials to ensure that the funds he brought in for the Guardian Scholars would not be used for other purposes.
In his farewell letter, McPartlin said many of the conditions that threaten City College with the loss of accreditation persist even two years after that crisis began.
“I have determined that it is no longer tenable for me to remain at this college doing the work I love,” he wrote. “Grants have been lost or put at serious risk by the actions of others, random accusations made without substance, and the usual institutional 'gang culture’ predominates.”
Since McPartlin’s departure, first one new coordinator came, then another. Meanwhile, City College officials have had more on their minds than the Guardian Scholars. As McPartlin was leaving, the accrediting commission was meeting to decide whether to let City College avoid closure while continuing to work on complying with standards. (A final decision comes in January.)
But even as City College’s new administrators argued that they run the college better than previous leaders, the Guardian Scholars was falling through the cracks.
The program has just $12,339 left, but can’t spend the money because it’s left over from last year and requires permission from foundations to be used in ways other than originally specified.
Foundation officials say it’s up to the college to approach them and prove the money is in good hands. Several funders said that hasn’t happened, and that City College has been lukewarm in its approach and has missed opportunities to meet.
“Where is the sense of urgency? When we are desperate to get that check, none of us sits around and twiddles our thumbs and waits for the phone to ring,” said Emily Scott Pottruck, a longtime funder who is so concerned that she showed up at the student government meeting to listen as Ward, Brown and others explained the problems.
Other funders, who have given more than $280,000 to the program in recent years, agreed. The new developments have them worried.
“I’m concerned that with Michael McPartlin’s departure, that services might be watered down. I would need to be assured that the program would not be changing,” said one foundation official who asked not to be identified. She and others expressed particular concern that Ward’s request for emergency housing was rejected.
Coria and other college officials have now met repeatedly with students and said they want to make the program work. They said they approached the John Burton Foundation and received an additional $500 in book vouchers for each Guardian Scholar. Students said they had no idea, and officials acknowledged that communication must improve.
Finances in flux
Finances also remain in flux. With no new grant applications pending and no access to the $12,000, college officials say they will rely on the $16,000 in student fees provided by the student government each semester. But the government is operating in the red and has money troubles of its own.
“City College is committed to supporting the program until we go out there and get the donors,” Coria said. “Right now, we need to make sure the students have housing and transportation. There’s no way we’ll let it go down.”
And Ward will get emergency housing, Coria said.
“That’s a relief,” Ward said. “But I’ll still be advocating for myself and my classmates.”
Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org