- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

MONTGOMERY, W.Va. (AP) - A nonprofit group announced a unique plan Wednesday to start a college in West Virginia for students who are transitioning out of foster care, giving at-risk young adults a chance to earn two-year degrees at no cost to them.

KVC Health Systems, which specializes in behavioral health care and child welfare, will take over several buildings at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology in Montgomery. West Virginia University is moving WVU Tech’s operations about 40 miles south to Beckley by this fall.

“We want to do something different,” said Tommy Bailey, a legislative lobbyist in West Virginia for Olathe, Kansas-based KVC Health Systems.

The plan will give educational and other opportunities to close “a long-known gap in foster-care services,” he said.

Colleges in many states offer various forms of financial and other assistance to students transitioning from the foster care system.

Starting a college solely for them appears to be innovative.

“This is the first program of its kind that I have heard of,” American Association of Community Colleges spokeswoman Martha Parham said in an email Wednesday. “I know there are foster youth programs at many community colleges, but have not heard of a new college being created.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, children in foster care are at high risk of dropping out of school or do not enroll in courses that prepare them for college, where they are unlikely to attend or graduate. More than 400,000 children at any time are in foster care, and Bailey said up to 30,000 became too old for the system each year.

Foster care benefits are terminated at age 21 in most states, including West Virginia. Because foster students typically have no support system or homes to return to during summer vacation or the holidays, those in Montgomery will live on campus full time, Bailey said.

And since they’ve been through the traumatic experience of going through the foster care system, not to mention what may have happened in their own families, the students will have access to behavioral specialists and mentoring programs.

“A traditional college environment isn’t always the right fit for these young people,” Bailey said. “The support necessary is so significant that we have to think about college in a different way.”

Among the courses being considered are in health care, computer skills, construction and carpentry, culinary arts and hospitality services, he said.

KVC is seeking accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission. It plans to have about 200 students and a staff of about 50 involved within a year and up to 500 students once the college is fully operational.

The college will place a priority on enrolling students from West Virginia. All students will be required to find jobs once they’re in school.

KVC is working with numerous potential partners to soak up all of those costs, including tuition, living, food, transportation and tutoring. It also is in discussions with a YMCA chapter and a nearby technical college to figure out other ways to use the campus.

The nonprofit group will lease the properties in Montgomery with an option to purchase them under an agreement in principle with WVU.

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