Hillsides Community Blog

Five Tips for Returning to College After Time Away From Someone Who Knows

Lisa graduation photoedited use this


By Lisa Gavitt

Being a college student isn’t a walk in the park. It is stressful, exhausting, challenging and really pushes you to use your mind in ways you never have before.  It’s even harder to return to college once you’ve taken a break because it’s easy to get out of the study habit.

Many of the youth in our Youth Moving On (YMO) Program for those transitioning from foster care to adulthood have experienced a disrupted education because of circumstances beyond their control.   When they jump back into student life, not only are they dealing with the challenges of being a student, many are facing homelessness and lacking financial or emotional support from caring adults.

Although my situation is very different from the youth at YMO, I experienced my own struggles after graduating high school that forced me to take some time away from school. I ended up returning at the age of 22 and finally, five years later, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fullerton this past May.

Here are some tricks I used to get back into the routine of being a student that can help anyone else in the same situation:

  • Show up! A lot of college professors don’t take attendance and leave it up to you to hold yourself accountable. Missing class means that you will fall behind in lectures and notes, and you could even miss something more important like a quiz or a test.  In addition, if you’re not in class, you can’t learn anything. So while you’re a college student, put your class attendance at the top of your priority list.
  • Do Exactly What the Syllabus Says. It really is that simple. Think of the syllabus as your instruction manual to getting an A in the class. If you follow the directions completely, you will get the desired result (a good grade). But if you leave things out, or try to do things a different way, you may end up with something you weren’t hoping for (a not-so-good grade).
  • Make Friends With Your Classmates. You don’t have to be BFFs or anything (although you can be). You just have to build a small network of people you can rely on if you need help with something, which you inevitably will. Get at least three phone numbers or email addresses of people in your class. This will come in super handy if you are ever confused on an assignment or miss class and need to be brought up to speed. (Which you would never do because being in class is so important, right?)
  • Use the Library. Most literature nowadays can be found online at your school’s website, so I don’t mean use the library for checking out books (although you certainly can). What I mean is, use the library as a quiet place to study. I found studying at home came with 1,568,382 distractions. I would sit down with my study materials and soon be distracted with Netflix, making food, checking Instagram, cleaning my room –anything but studying. Eventually I discovered that the library provided a quiet place for me to get some serious studying done with minimal distractions. What a revelation!
  • Make Sure Your Professors Know Who You Are. Many of my college classes were held in huge lecture halls with 100 plus students, so it was easy to get lost in the crowd. My theory is that if your professor knows your name and your face, they are more likely to give you a higher grade because you have distinguished yourself from the crowd. To make sure they can get to know you, sit in the front of the classroom and ask questions. As an added bonus, grabbing a seat up front helps you to stay engaged in the class.  It’s also a good idea to take full advantage of a professor’s office hours.  You can have unanswered questions cleared up plus it’s a chance to bond with your professors.

Despite the long nights, tears shed, and stress-filled days, I reflect on my college experience as some of my fondest times. It helped to build my identity, enhance my self-esteem, and teach me about life.  As Warren Buffet once said, “The greatest investment a young person can make is in their own education, in their own mind. Money comes and goes. Relationships come and go. But what you learn once stays with you forever.”

Lisa Gavitt is the development coordinator for Hillsides’ Advancement Department. She recently graduated with a major in communications from California State University, Fullerton and studied abroad for one semester in Sydney, Australia. She has worked with children as a nanny, a tutor, and an English teach in Vietnam, but always dreamed of becoming an event coordinator. Her position at Hillsides has allowed her to fulfill her goals while staying in touch with her passion for helping children.

Five Tips to Help Your Kids Find Their Back-To-School Groove


By Amy Salgado

It’s that time of year when we begin replacing beach days and late summer nights with early mornings and school days. The start of a new school year can bring about excitement, anxiety and new challenges. Here are some tips to help begin the school year with hope and success.

Provide structure

Routines are important to help kids anticipate what is expected each day and to promote self-regulation. Start your child’s day with a breakfast and have a healthy snack upon their arrival from school. Consider reducing access to screens and allowing for more opportunities to engage positively with others.

Before bedtime, it’s also a good idea to prepare for the school day by making lunch, setting out clothes, or making sure all materials/assignments are packed.  Allow your child to help in the process – even if you don’t always agree with their wardrobe choices. This will help children build skills and begin to take responsibility for themselves.

You can begin to practice this new schedule even if school hasn’t started yet.  By the time classes start, your kids will be in the swing of the morning rhythm.


Take note of important dates and keep them organized on a calendar. These include open house, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, and parent-teacher conferences.  Also, many schools provide a downloadable calendar you can hang on a wall or your refrigerator.

If your child has an IEP, review it before school begins and continue to do so throughout the school year. It may be helpful to review the accommodations with your child so that they can understand what is available to help them progress. Be sure to make note of changes that need to be made based on your child’s current needs. Reach out to the school if you have any questions or concerns.


Communicate often with the school. If your child or family has experienced changes over the summer, let the school know. Teachers should also be informed of any concerns or milestones.  This can help the teacher build a positive relationship with your child and support their successes.

Aside from communicating with the school, it’s also important to communicate with your child.  Children look to adults to guide them. If you demonstrate a positive attitude toward school, your child can begin to create their own healthy and positive beliefs that can result in improved academic performance. If your child has a good day at school, provide reinforcement and share in their excitement. If your child comes home from school disappointed, offer support and validation. Encourage your child to try again the next day.

Reflect and Prepare

As you look forward to the future school year, take time to review the previous year with your child. If they ran into any challenges, how did they work through them?  Talk about strategies that helped and how your child can deploy them again this year.

If you anticipate a new challenge, such as a difficult teacher or social scene, talk through sources of support or skills that can help your child successfully navigate through any difficulties. By preparing for possible road blocks, you help your child confidentially navigate them.

Be kind to yourself

Take care of yourself – eat well, exercise, and try to get enough sleep — and encourage your family to do the same. By modeling healthy habits, you are teaching your children that they are valuable and setting them up for success. Here’s to a great school year!

Amy Salgado is an education support services therapist at Hillsides Education Center, a therapeutic residential and non-public school located in Pasadena, CA.  In her job, she supports children and their families with their educational goals as part of a wraparound team.  Amy, who has also worked as a school therapist in public, charter, and continuation schools, recently celebrated her two-year anniversary at Hillsides.  To learn more about Hillsides Education Center, please visit www.hillsideseducationcenter.org.




How education is failing youth in foster care


By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO

A recent article in the Press-Telegram reporting the grand jury investigation of a number of school districts’ use of funds intended to benefit youth in foster care was an eye opener, pointing to the failure of school systems to adequately address the needs of children in the foster care system. In spite of the best of intentions and the availability of significant funding, the articled noted the inability of most school systems to effectively address absenteeism, school disruption, and graduation rate. Inconsistency regarding the utilization of additional funding is evident from school district to school district, creating enormous discrepancies regarding services available to support youth in foster care. Since these youth often move between school districts because of the lack of resources to maintain them within their school district of origin, these discrepancies have a negative impact on them.
Much has been done to convene policy makers, school officials, guardians, service providers, and advocates to address this crisis over the last several years but the failure to communicate effectively and stay focused on the child has led to disarray. The ineffectiveness of the education and child welfare system has placed children in foster care at risk academically and, in some instances, physically because of inadequate programs unprepared to address their complex needs.
Part of the problem is a result of school districts having used an influx of new funding to address budget deficits rather than develop specific services for youth in foster care. The lack of direction from the California Department of Education regarding the use of these funds and no system to account for how these funds actually benefit foster children has only added to the discrepancies sited in the article. The financial incentive of school districts to develop services once contracted to specialized providers has stretched their capacity to adequately serve these children and jeopardized the quality of care they receive.
This chaotic situation is at the root of the absenteeism, school disruption, and ultimately lower graduation rates for children in the foster care system. The failure of the education system to address adequately the needs of foster youth is yet one more factor that threatens the ability of these children to be successful. Education is the foundation for life-long success. Without a good education, youth in foster care are exposed to an almost insurmountable obstacle that will impact their lives forever.
Because public funding is so inadequate whether for education or child welfare, policy makers and public officials safeguard funding sources to the point of being blindsided as to the needs of those who ultimately are the beneficiaries of these funds. What is held in common is a genuine desire to serve the child. This intention must become the driving force in an examination of how both education and child welfare must work collaboratively to address the needs for these children and their families.
Grand jury investigations often lead to finger pointing and assignment of blame. As a provider of much-needed services to children who are so vulnerable, I hope that once the dust settles we can move beyond blaming to develop solutions that will leverage precious public resources to effectively serve the needs of youth in foster care. Each day, Hillsides deals with youth who have experienced trauma and become re-traumatized because the public school is inadequately prepared to serve their complex needs. As a result, residents are often suspended from school, victims of bullying, and occasionally exposed to unsafe conditions. All this undermines the educational agenda and makes it more difficult to address their therapeutic concerns.
The conclusions of the grand jury must serve as an opportunity to re-examine how we support the educational needs of youth in foster care and hopefully help develop a more comprehensive approach that joins the capacity of both the education and child welfare system to effectively serve children served through the foster care system.

Six Tips to Help Your Kids Get Even Smarter the Final Weeks of Summer


Edited by Lisa Gavitt

There are still several weeks left of summer, and you may be worrying that your children are losing some of the academic gains they made at school. While summer learning loss, a.k.a. the “summer slide,” is a real challenge, there are many things parents can do to promote ongoing learning disguised in a fun way.  Here are some ideas from two of our staffers at Hillsides Education Center, therapist Jill Anderson and parent partner Georgie Norris. Some of them take a little planning; others you can do on the fly.

  1. Turn Driving Time into Learning Time If you’re on a long driving trip, playing car games will sharpen your kids’ wits while staving off boredom. Try finding letters of the alphabet to complete license plate Bingo or else, have one child pick an animal (tiger) and the other use the last letter to name another animal (rat).
  2. Create an I’m Bored Bag  Fill a bag with things kids can do that are fun but take brain power, such as spelling quizzes, Sudoku puzzles, flashcards, and creative writing prompts. Then when your child comes to you for the hundredth time saying “I’m bored,” you can refer them to the bag.
  3. Stay Active  Studies conducted on children revealed that aerobic exercise stimulates brain growth and cognitive performance, leading to better focus and higher achievements. Here are some fun ways to keep your kiddos on the move this summer:
  1. Read, Read, Read This one might sound like a given, but it is necessary to be reminded of just how important reading is while away from the classroom. Numerous studies indicate that students who read infrequently or not at all during their summer vacation see their reading abilities plateau or decline The key here is having your child select books they are interested in and encourage reading for pleasure. If you have a resistant reader, you can try reading together or encouraging them with some outdoor playtime afterward. Parents who read for pleasure themselves are also very influential. After all, you are their greatest example! For a list of summer book ideas, check out the recommendations from our Hillsides Librarian: https://hillsidescommunity.wordpress.com/2018/06/15/eighteen-top-book-picks-for-summer-2018/
  1. Don’t be Afraid of Technology IPads and tablets can be your friend when keeping your children’s minds stimulated, plus there are a plethora of free educational online programs and apps available. Here are a few to try:
  2. Experience and Explore New Places Whether traveling on vacation or adventuring around your own city, experiencing something new is proven to form new connections in the brain. Los Angelenos are fortunate to have access to countless museums, parks, and aquariums, so take advantage! Visiting new places fosters opportunities for teachable moments and gets kids asking questions and wondering about new things. Here are some cost-friendly family favorites:
  • Skirball Cultural Center. The Center has many kid-friend exhibits, such as the current Jim Henson Exhibition running until September 2. Tickets are free on Thursdays https://www.skirball.org/

Emancipation: A Rough Entry into Adulthood


Left to right:  Dennys Valle and Victor Pinzon

By Annika Lile

Two hundred dollars and a handshake.  This is what welcomed Dennys Valle, at the age of 17, into “adulthood” when he left the foster care system.

“I felt like an alien out in this new world,” said Dennys, a peer partner housing liaison at Hillsides’ Youth Moving On (YMO) program for youth transitioning from foster care to adulthood. Dennys also lived in YMO’s transitional housing program.

Emancipation typically has a positive connotation because by definition it means to free from restraint or influence.  The word is also associated with the end of slavery, as Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was intended to help free slaves from the shackles of oppression and abuse.

Yet, the word has taken on a whole new meaning for individuals in the foster care system.  Emancipation from the foster care system means that a young adult, between the ages of 16 and 21, depending on their situation, who was previously receiving foster care, is relinquished from the care of the government.  While some may think it is important for these youth to be out on their own, this is the opposite of what they need. Individuals in the foster care system have dealt with loss, abuse and traumatic life experiences.  While in the foster care system, they have often bounced around from home to home and fail to form attachments with adults. Once emancipated, because they don’t have a core support system, they often have no one to turn to and few resources.

Victor Pinzon, a former Youth Moving On youth and employee, also experienced emancipation first-hand.   He describes the mix of emotions he felt during this time as “stress, fear, loneliness, confusion and lack of support.”  Victor has since gone on to graduate from college and create a successful career for himself in the field of social work, however his personal experiences reveal the terrible vulnerability of emancipated youth.

Youth leaving the foster care system are at a high risk for homelessness and other challenges.   According to Foster Focus magazine, “within 18 months of emancipation 40-50% of foster youth become homeless, [and] nationally, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care.”

Unemployment is also high in this population.  According to Children’s Bureau’s most recent statistics, in 2016, 20,531 youths were emancipated in the nation, yet only 52% of these individuals were employed by age 21.  And when they do find jobs, they are usually lower paying than other youth their age.  In addition, other studies show that youth formerly in foster care face higher rates of pregnancy and incarceration.

Hillsides’ YMO program was created in 2006 as an anecdote to these issues.  YMO provides youth formerly in foster care with affordable transitional and permanent housing.  It also maintains a robust work force education program that provides youth who graduate from a workforce curriculum with paid internships and jobs.  In addition, the YMO Peer Resource Center is a one-stop shop of resources and services for youth ages 16 through 25.  The Center offers hygiene products, individual therapy and support groups, life skills training, bus tokens and coupons, school supplies and tutoring, food and cooking classes, and computer access.  It also offers youth unique experiences such as walks around the Rose Bowl, cooking classes, movie days, yoga sessions, barbeques, and even salsa dancing (Victor himself used to teach the classes).

While YMO can’t solve all the problems that come with emancipation from the foster care system, it has helped hundreds of youth create independent lives. Dennys, for example, may have left the foster care system with only a little money and a good-luck handshake, but at YMO, his post foster-care life fell into place. “YMO gave me a safe space to live, taught me how to open a checking account and budget my money, and helped me get my first job,” he said.  “Before, I didn’t know the meaning of the word support, but here, I finally received it and was able to discover strengths I didn’t even know I had.”

To learn more about the YMO Program, please visit www.youthmovingon.org or call 626-765-6010.

Annika is an intern in Hillsides’ advancement department.  A graduate from Arcadia High School, she is majoring in integrated marketing communications at Pepperdine University.  She intends to use her collegiate education to pursue a meaningful career that assists others in need.




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