Providing educational support during and after foster care

An interview with At the Table Executive Director Mike Zink

From left, Melanie Chiluisa, Destiny Rogers, Nick Simmons, Ashia Troiano, Michael Zink, Juan Santiago and Chelsea Wang

From left, Melanie Chiluisa, Destiny Rogers, Nick Simmons, Ashia Troiano, Michael Zink, Juan Santiago and Chelsea Wang (Image courtesy of At the Table).

Mike Zink helped design a tutoring program for young people in foster care that has been proven to transform outcomes. It’s since been publicly funded to make it available for young people impacted by both foster care and the juvenile justice throughout the city. But he discovered from his work with the program that more needed to be done. So he moved forward with his desire to start a nonprofit focused on making sure no young person who has experienced foster care in New York City was without access to quality services and consistent, caring support. 

At the Table connects students currently and formerly in foster care with the educational resources. Far exceeding the typical 12% graduation rate for college students with lived foster care experience, a recently completed evaluation of At the Table’s three-year outcomes for its first cohort of college students found that over 40% had earned 2- or 4-year college degrees and projected that 55% would eventually earn degrees. 

City & State caught up with Zink to reflect on his work with foster care youth and discuss concrete suggestions for how funders, teachers, policymakers and others can better support and reduce obstacles for aspiring young people who have already overcome so much on their paths to and through college. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve had an interesting career path. What are some of the defining jobs you’ve had along the way?

I always wanted to be a satirical writer. When I was in college, I studied biochemistry because Kurt Vonnegut said that if everyone who wanted to be a writer studied English, then literature would disappear up its own you-know-what. I graduated and moved to New York City to be a writer and thought I’d do test-prep tutoring on the side. What I actually did was become a full-time test-prep tutor working with kids, from New Jersey to Connecticut, for about four years.

I spent the next six years at The New York Foundling, a foster care agency in New York City. I had started volunteering, doing pro-bono SAT prep for students in foster care, and quickly discovered that pro-bono SAT prep was not what students at The Foundling needed. The barrier was not about passing a test, the barrier was that students were having a hard time getting the foundational education in high school that they needed in order to graduate high school and go on to succeed in college. It’s very hard for a volunteer to make up that difference in the space of a few weeks.

So, I proposed a completely different program that changed just about everything that wasn’t working about the pro-bono SAT prep idea. Whereas students had had to travel to meet with me at a Foundling office, this new program’s tutors would go to their homes. Rather than tapping volunteers with limited bandwidth, it would connect students with full-time tutors who had the time and space to help them navigate challenges. And in place of the focus on test prep, we’d support students through their transition to and through high school, and into college. (Without these interventions, youth in foster care are required to repeat grades or drop out of school at far higher rates than their peers. For example, before this program started, fewer than half of The Foundling’s 9th graders were being promoted to 10th grade.) That basic idea – weekly long-term, one-on-one tutoring from professional tutors who are able to build relationships with students and offer support beyond academics – is the thread I’ve been following ever since.

I was hired to start and run this program, thanks to a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Now known as Road to Success, today it serves students across New York City. We launched other programs too: a college-bound tutoring program for high school juniors and seniors in foster care across New York City, the tutoring component of the Dorm Project (now called the College Choice program), which offers dorming and other supports to college students in care, and an early literacy focused program serving students in K-5.

Throughout my career, I’ve believed that every student deserves to get the same level of care, respect and personalization that wealthy families that can afford to pay top dollar for tutoring routinely receive.

What drew you to work within the child welfare system initially?

A vicarious experience. I had a close friend in college who had been emancipated from the foster care system as a teenager. When we were in college, he was receiving grant funding for students in foster care, but there was a problem – they needed his transcript in order to pay the university, but the university wouldn’t release his transcript until tuition was paid in full.

To make things worse, the whole reason the funding gap existed was that Yale, which supposedly offered “100% of need-met” financial aid, still required him to come up with thousands of dollars each year, based on the completely wrongheaded idea that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have enough “skin in the game” to take his education seriously. Imagine thinking that any student who was so determined that they made it to one of the most competitive universities on Earth with limited family resources would rest on their laurels unless they had to pay money to the college!

This all infuriated me, and I thought, obviously someone higher-up is going to look at this obviously terrible situation and fix it. But that was my privilege speaking. The university didn’t do anything about it, no matter how much my brilliant friend advocated for himself through the proper channels. Fortunately, that friend did end up doing really well for himself, but he had to take substantial time away from school because of it.

From then on, I had an interest in being part of the solution to these kinds of injustices and I got an opportunity to do that at The Foundling. In my current role, I’ve gotten really good at talking to college bursars and we have a great team that is adept at identifying and closing funding gaps to prevent something like what happened to my friend ever happening to At the Table students. But since I’ve been in this field, I’ve learned about so many other big issues that we need to fix, and how much more systems-level advocacy needs to be done.

What are some of the challenges that youth who have experienced foster care face on their educational and career journeys?

Pretty much all of the available data says that students in foster care don’t get the educational outcomes that they want or deserve. In the Midwest Study – which I’ve been citing for my whole career because when it came out it was the only study that took a long-term comprehensive look at what people’s lives were like after foster care in America – they found that about three-quarters of young people in foster care wanted to get bachelor’s degrees, but that only around 3% had them by age 26. In fact, the overall college degree attainment rate in America is less than a lot of people think it is – a little under 40% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree – but for students in foster care that rate is ten times less. Here in New York City, a recent study from CIDI found that just a quarter of students in foster care are graduating high school on time (and that most never get a diploma).

There’s an uncountable number of different explanations for why this is. Kids in foster care disproportionately come from communities that are discriminated against in access to educational resources (poor communities and communities of color, primarily). Some have been through traumas that profoundly affect their ability to learn in school for periods of time, including family separation, abuse and neglect (which can happen before or during their time in care), having to take care of siblings or even parents as a child. And when it’s time for college, many of our students have to spend a lot of their energy figuring out basic necessities like food and housing, addressing family emergencies, or navigating overcomplicated financial aid systems. They are often in the same classroom and getting graded on the same curve with a set of students who face much smaller challenges with a much greater amount of interpersonal support and access to quality information.

When did you know that your next move would be to start a new organization? What need or opportunity did you see that you believed couldn't be addressed through existing organizations?

I’d been thinking about starting a new organization for a long time before I started At the Table. While I learned a lot from working inside the system, I found it difficult to fully live my values within the limitations of t large institutions. For example, foster care providers often have a top-down orientation that places students at the bottom, and which a lot of young people experience as dehumanizing. We think about this a lot at At the Table. Before we started serving students, we put together a set of values that our whole community can hold us accountable to in our direct work and beyond. We’re also led by a board of directors that will always have a majority of people with lived foster system experience.

Also, when I was at The Foundling I spent a lot of time thinking about young people who weren’t in foster care anymore. One of the important aspects of the Road to Success program was that while we started with students who were in the system, we would keep working with young people after they left, whether they were adopted, or reunified with their parent, or aged out of the system at 21. When that happened, there were limited services. Often, tutoring was the only service these students were able to continue, and so suddenly their tutor would be the only person supporting the young person and family when, before, there’d been a lot of folks to turn to. Because of this, we got to see up close the struggles young people faced after the system had declared victory: adoptions and kinGAP arrangements that fell apart, unstable housing, mental health challenges and more. We always did what we could, but our resources were limited by the fact that we were a small department within a much larger organization, and that we weren’t really supposed to be focusing on non-educational issues.

So At the Table was created to build citywide services that acknowledged that people’s needs and aspirations don’t change when young people finally leave the foster system, and to dream big and be holistic about how to support those needs and goals. We also want to be able to win the trust of people who have felt let down by the system and for whom reconnecting with a child welfare agency would be a retraumatizing experience.

There’s still a huge disparity, by the way, in services and support for people still in the system versus out. Students who stay in foster care can get a $60/day stipend to attend college, and up to $45,000 in combined room and board and tuition support on top of that, through the College Choice program, but you have to be currently in care in order to join the program. That means if you get adopted at 16, you’re losing out on maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars of college funding. Even if those adoptions work out and the young person isn’t abandoned or estranged from their adoptive families, that’s an awful choice to have to make and I think there’s a lot of work to be done to balance the scales.

Could you describe the work that your organization currently does?

At the Table connects students with foster care experience with long-term 1:1 tutors and advisors who work in equal partnership toward the student’s goals and stay connected to them for as long as they like, until graduation. 

Our tutors do a lot more than just tutoring, of course. We use an “earned mentorship” model where we start working with students around something concrete like algebra or psychology and then intentionally leave space for the role to grow into mentorship, which we see as a chosen role. We're big proponents of long-term tutoring as a way to create these kinds of relationships!

We are a college support org that thinks about not just offering high quality instruction and advising, but increasingly about how to connect our students with the tangible resources that they need to access college. To us, access means not just being able to get into a college, but actually having the life conditions in place to be able to attend. This past year, we added a wonderful College Access Advisor to our team who’s been able to not only assist with college planning, but actually help students get their medicaid fixed, or secure benefits, or get a housing voucher. We also do some limited direct funding support for students.

Starting a new nonprofit is not an easy road. From where do you draw the strength, purpose or inspiration to pursue this vision?

I started working on At the Table in 2020, right as the pandemic was hitting - and I think the monastic isolation of those first few months in some ways helped me focus on the idea.

I’ve had a really good community around me, including a lot of support and mentorship from people with expertise informed by their direct experience of the foster system - my friend from college, our board of directors, a consultant who helps me keep my head on straight. I have a group of colleagues old and new that are working on At the Table, too, and I’m excited to see them every day. When I was young, I tried to do everything on my own. I feel like over the course of my career, I’ve grown a lot in my ability to seek out and take good advice, and that’s important, because advice is vital when you’re trying to do something like this. Even the little things -- like, at one point, I was thinking about names for the organization, and Ashia, who now leads our College Tutoring Program, told me that the first idea I had was very bad, which sent me back to the drawing board for a better name. I am so glad she did that! I also owe a debt of gratitude to Liz Northcutt, who had gone through a similar process to start City Living NYC a few years before I did.

At the Table’s students have been such an important part of our community, and have given so much good program advice and feedback. It’s an honor to get to work with them, truly, and just hearing from them about what motivates them to do school and their goals for themselves and ultimately seeing their progress and what it means to them pulls me forward all the time.

If there was one thing you’d like every teacher, educator, public official to know, what would it be?

That it is far better to believe in someone and risk being wrong than to not believe in them and be right. I think that’s true and important both at the individual and the system level.

Educational systems and programs too often fail to recognize people’s immense capacity for growth. That growth can come from people genuinely learning new skills, or it can come from people ending up in a position where they’re able to use the skills they already have that weren’t evident before. The problem is, students are always getting screened out of programs and opportunities based on what they did before, which is a massive barrier for people with lived experience of foster care, whose records often don’t reflect what they’re really capable of.

Restricting students based on past academic performance or conformity to a particular educational or life arc is a pervasive problem for the students we serve, and in general. Federal financial aid policies (including the age limit on ETV and the Return of Title IV funds policy) separate deserving students from funding and can even put people into debt collections. And federal and state financial aid limits on GPA and academic progress mean that students who are struggling with life circumstances that make school harder now have to go through an onerous appeals process to keep their financial aid or leave college altogether. System designers looking to make sure that aid is used properly can often veer into doing harm to the very students they're trying to help. This is a shortcoming not just of implementation, but of philosophy and mindset.

At the Table refuses to turn away students based on their age, GPA, or academic history, and that's different from a lot of orgs in our space. We will probably never have a 90% graduation rate, but our students average a B- every semester and we’re already seeing results that indicate that the graduation rate for our students is much higher than those for college students with foster care experience generally. Among our college graduates are some students who have had really unconventional paths to success - people who came back from academic probation or dismissal, people whose guidance counselors or college advisors were telling them that maybe college wasn’t for them, and in one case a student who actually managed to start college without having officially graduated high school. Those are the stories we want to be able to tell if we are going to be an organization that’s really making a difference around college outcomes as opposed to aligning with a small subset of students that we think is going to do the best.

How about funders -- what are ways philanthropy can make a meaningful difference in this space?

The current system of achievement-gated college support programs comes from a desire to please funders and compete for money. There's such a strong incentive to want to report extremely strong top-end #s ("my program has a 90% graduation rate!") and a lot of orgs feel pressure to exclude the people who are most in need of extra support. 

As a society, I think we need to shift from obsessing over building more stuff for "high-achieving low income students" to thinking about how we can fund durable educational programs and institutions that engage and serve everyone in the community that they're focusing on. Sophisticated funders can make a real difference by making targeted investments in programs that deeply serve their whole community and don’t cherry-pick students with the fewest hurdles to overcome.