Vanity Parrish began studying nursing at the University of Texas at San Antonio this year. The 19-year-old is the first in her family to attend college, a goal she wasn’t sure how she would achieve at first.
“I wanted to go to college, but it was going to be difficult,” she said. “I didn’t know how to pay for college or apply. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Parrish is one of 67 young adults participating in the College Bound Docket specialty court, which is housed under the Bexar County Children’s Court. Though it’s called a docket and is referred to as a specialty court, it’s better described as a program that supports youths in foster care and those who have aged out of the system who are interested in college or post-high school training.
Former Judge Peter Sakai, who helped start the program and oversaw the Bexar County Children’s Court before resigning his seat in October to run for Bexar County judge, described the program as “cutting edge.”
“There was obviously a gap in our foster care system,” he said. “The numbers are abysmal — only 3% of foster kids take advantage of tuition waiver, which is basically free college. But the tuition waiver does not provide additional resources for housing, emergency funds, fees.”
What is unusual about the program is its direct financial assistance to participants. The state of Texas offers free college tuition to many teens in the foster care system or those who were in it as a teenager. But many of the expenses that keep those youths from completing their degrees are outside of tuition.
“They tell you to go to college, but you’ve got to figure out where you’re gonna live and [other expenses] like the textbooks,” said MJ Leigh, a beneficiary of the college assistance program and liaison between other participants and staff. “I know recently we paid for a student’s textbooks at Texas Tech [University]; the bill was over $500.”
Like many young adults, Leigh was grappling with life changes and adjusting to new stages of life when she entered the college assistance program in 2019. But unlike most young adults, she had been through the foster care system and was not living with her birth parents at the time.
“My dad lives in Houston and he had kicked me out for his own selfish reasons of wanting to use drugs and deal it,” she said. “I asked him if he wouldn’t do that while I was there and he was just like, ‘Well, just leave.’”
Leigh, now 25, was working and attending college in Houston at the time but found her living situation unsustainable. Leigh said she was skeptical at first, but accepted an opportunity to move to San Antonio and be a part of the College Bound Docket program two years ago.
“It changed my life,” she said.
The program started six months before the coronavirus pandemic hit, causing concern among administrative staff overseeing the program. While Judge Charles Montemayor serves as the presiding judge for the court and there is support staff in place, the linchpin for the still-young program’s success lies with Leigh, said Barbara Schafer, court coordinator for the Bexar County Children’s Court.
“If we did not have her to have those connections, we probably would have lost a lot of kids a long time ago,” Schafer said.
Sakai agreed, highlighting the relationship-building between staff and program participants, as well as participants themselves.
“The College Bound Docket has really been developed to provide normalcy for these foster kids and treat them as if they are our very own kids,” he said. “And that’s been a game-changer. You’re going to start seeing foster kids transitioning to college seamlessly. They’re prepared. And they know there’s a connector.
“I know MJ [Leigh] won’t be there forever, but we’ll have someone else succeeding MJ.”
Now finishing her last year as a candidate for a bachelor’s degree in psychology at UTSA, Leigh is working on a paper that explores what measures can be put into place to help youths that were in foster care graduate from college. Nationwide, only 3% of former foster care youth obtain a college degree.
“If there is more support in place for foster youth who go to college, then they’re more likely to graduate and succeed,” she explained. “The rates right now are really poor and that’s because there are so many things. College is already hard for anybody; it’s hard for people who do have support, any sort of support. But there’s a ton of research out there.”
The College Bound Docket program was first funded with $3.5 million from the Texas Legislature in 2019 and received another $1.2 million during the 2021 legislative session. UTSA, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Child Advocates San Antonio, Alamo Colleges District, and Bexar County Children’s Court work together to administer the program. It is hardly the only specialty program for foster care youth in Bexar County; Parrish is an alumnus of the Preparation for Adult Living (PALs) program, which she participated in before joining the College Bound Docket. But Parrish credits the docket for her current college enrollment.
Beyond getting financial assistance and advice from the program, Parrish said she appreciates the time she spends with other foster care youth during their monthly meetings, which were held over Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic. During those meetings, program participants share their life experiences and challenges.
Parrish said she imagines the program wouldn’t be as impactful without hearing from her peers, who have similar stories of taking care of siblings while still children themselves and not having consistent relationships with their parents.
She and her younger sister, who is now in eighth grade, entered the foster care system when Parrish was 15 because “we had family members who weren’t ready to take us and carry that responsibility.” Their mother struggled with substance abuse, so the two went to live with a family friend who offered to take them.
“Our parents having to deal with drug addictions, or feeling abandoned by one parent, I think that was something similar I could share with somebody,” she said.
Parrish received two months of rental assistance from the college court, but now pays her bills with her wages from her part-time job at Walmart, she said. She also went back to Leigh for more personal help.
“She’d help me a lot with school and try to comfort me and everything, about school and other things going on. Like if I had other things going on she’d talk to me,” Parrish said. “Like, when I was stressed about moving by myself and being by myself, she said that would be OK and it’s a new journey to be a college student and be by yourself.”
On Nov. 18, Leigh joined five others who aged out of the foster care system for lunch in the courthouse. It was the first time they had gathered in person since the start of the pandemic.
The group gave updates on their life to Montemayor and program manager Ruchi Davis over tacos. Some were enrolled in college while others were still figuring out what they wanted to do. Leigh listened and shared her own news as well: she would be graduating with her bachelor’s degree in the spring.
After she graduates, she plans on applying for UTSA’s master’s program for social work. She won’t leave the college-assistance program quite yet, she said; the Texas Legislature gave enough funding to sustain the program for the next two years. After that, she’s not sure.
“I’ll be here as long as they let me,” she said.