Family First
Foster care program offers financial, social, and training support to families.

By Sondra Barr

Phoenix Christian Preparatory school counselor Amber Walker brought the idea of starting a foster care program to Lauren Scharnweber’s attention in 2016.

The director of curriculum and instruction at Phoenix Christian, Lauren and her husband were fostering three children as a non-relative kinship family, at the time. “As a kinship family, you don’t get paid by the state or get training. You’re only approved to care for those specific kids,” explains Lauren. While they’d go on to become a licensed foster family, Lauren was excited to implement a program at the school that would support students in foster care, as well as help parents navigate the often difficult foster system.

In Arizona, the need for foster parents is tremendous. With over 14,000 children in care of the state, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, many of these kids don’t have a family setting to live. Instead they reside in shelters, group homes, or institutions.

Foster homes, on the other hand, provide children a safe environment to stay in while one or both parents work to reunite with their children. According to Arms of Love Foster Care, “This can take days, weeks, months, or longer. Some of these children will never be able to return home, and they need a permanent family to love and care for them through adoption.”

“We wanted to be able to support the families who’re providing a loving, safe environment for these children, so Amber and I worked together to make that happen,” says Lauren.

Their determination to make the program a reality paid off. Currently, 10 families, which include 21 preschool through 12th-grade students, are in the program. The total tuition provided to these families is $169,730 for the current school year. Twenty-three additional students have come through the program since it began.

Phoenix Christian’s Foster Care Program includes full tuition to foster families, as well as workshops and training for families and teachers. Through the program, foster children at the school have increased access to high quality academic, athletic, and extracurricular opportunities that they might not otherwise have.

“The entire family is included in the program, the foster family’s biological children too,” says Lauren. “We want to support the whole family.” Kinship families, even though they aren’t licensed foster families are eligible too.

“We open the program to any family who’s actively in foster care or kinship (not adopted). We have a deadline of July 1 to apply for the program because we use a lot of state tax credits to fund the program,” Lauren says. Once a foster family has applied, there are steps the families have to take, including applying for STOs, individual tax credit referrals, and directing their tax credits to the program.

“If the family doesn’t get it covered with the tax credits, the school is committed and will pay the remaining balance of the tuition. That’s where fundraising comes in with events like golf tournaments,” Lauren says, before pointing out that last year 100 percent of the tuition for the program was raised mostly through STOs.

“It’s hard because when you’re a foster family, kids change potentially. We decided if they were going to be here at the beginning of the school year that they finish the year at Phoenix Christian and continue all the way through high school. Even if they go to a different family or if they’re reunifying, they’ll allowed to continue here. Our goal is to help the unification process and provide a consistent environment. And, if the kid goes to a new foster family, the scholarship will remain open to those kids through high school,” says Lauren.

Although STOs don’t cover preschool tuition, foster families do get some money from DES, although it doesn’t cover the entirety of the cost. Phoenix Christian’s Foster Program awards scholarships funded by fundraisers to help offset the cost for foster families of preschoolers.

The program offers other benefits. “All foster families have to do six hours per year of training for their license. So we had a counselor come in and do training,” says Lauren. The school has also provided donated supplies, uniforms, and holds events like date night, where free child care is offered to foster parents wanting a night out.

Andrew and Danielle Rinnier have three children that they fostered before adopting. Maddox, 7; Levi, 6; and Sophia, 4. What was nice for the Rinniers is that once in the Phoenix Christian program, a foster child who’s then adopted is grandfathered in so that they can continue their education for free through high school.

“Our kids were going to Phoenix Christian even before we knew about the foster care program. The foster care program is an added bonus,” says Andrew.

“What’s really special and unique about it, beyond the financial benefit, is that my kids will know that there are other kids who share their experiences and share their background and it is its own community,” says Andrew. “There’s this little pocket of similar students with similar stories that many people might not understand or be able to wrap their minds around but they can be together, which we really appreciate and love about the school.”