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Millennial who went from foster care to doctorate honored for work helping foster youth graduate

Shante Elliott, a ward of the state until she was adopted at 13, created TassellTurn, a startup to help youth in foster care graduate high school. She is among 10 women nationwide selected to L’Oreal Paris’ 2019 Women of Worth.

Shante Elliott, 30, of Uptown, is among 10 women nationwide named to L’Oreal Paris’ 2019 Women of Worth, an honor that comes with $10,000. Elliott’s startup, TasselTurn, seeks to change the lives of foster and homeless youth by assigning them virtual education coaches to help them graduate and have a shot at attending college or getting a job.
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Her teenage mother turned her over to the state of North Carolina at birth.

Until adopted at age 13, Shante Elliott grew up in foster care in the child welfare system.

She’d go on to attend Fayetteville State University, earning dual bachelor’s degrees in English literature and communication, then a master’s in education policy from Loyola University Chicago.

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Now working on her Ph.D. in learning science at Northwestern University, the 30-year-old quit her job as director of community engagement at a nonprofit this year to focus on growing TasselTurn, the Pilsen-based startup she founded two years ago to help foster care youth graduate high school.

“The conversation on the achievement gap focuses on two populations — students from traditional families and low-income students,” said the Uptown resident.

“In Illinois, about 87 percent of high school students graduate and 67 percent of low-income students. But only 32 percent of youth in foster care graduate. Those numbers are very different and concerning, yet the conversation stops at low income,” Elliott said.

“There is a serious need to concentrate efforts to ensure our foster children graduate high school as well. So TasselTurn picks up that conversation.”

The millennial is among 10 women nationwide just named to L’Oreal Paris’ 2019 Women of Worth, beating out thousands nominated. Each recipient will receive $10,000 to continue their passion.

The initiative by the world’s largest cosmetics company, now in its 14th year, honors extraordinary women impacting their communities through selfless service.

One is to be named national honoree at an all-star gala Dec. 4 in New York City — an honor that comes with an additional $25,000.

Celebrities with an affinity to the women’s causes will present their awards, with folks like Julianne Moore, Eva Longoria, Amber Heard, Andie MacDowell, Aja Naomi King, Hoda Kotb and Arianna Huffington participating last year.

Like many social innovation competitions, the public chooses top winner.

Shante Elliott of Uptown quit her job to focus on TasselTurn, the startup she founded two years ago to help children growing up in foster care graduate high school. The Millennial has been named with 10 women nationwide to L’Oreal Paris’ 2019 Women of Worth — an honor that comes with $10,000 to continue her work.
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Online voting runs thru Nov. 15.

And while Chicagoans have made the list of finalists in the past — Jennifer Maddox of Future Ties last year, Diane Latiker of Kids Off The Block in 2016 — a Chicagoan has yet to win the 25K.

“When I got the call, I didn’t know what to do. It was totally unexpected,” said Elliott, who with her two employees and an intern, works out of Blue Lacuna in Pilsen, a co-working incubator. “For two months, we couldn’t say anything. It was the longest two months.”

Inspired by Elliott’s childhood, TasselTurn seeks to change the lives of foster, and as of recently, homeless teens, too, by matching them with virtual education coaches. Those coaches, mostly graduate students and young professionals, then stick with the youth to ensure they graduate and have a shot at either attending college or finding a job.

Foster youth change schools three times a year on average, research shows, each change placing them further behind peers, and 43 percent drop out.

“The $10,000 will allow us to continue our tech build out, so that as we scale, we’re able to onboard more youth in care and (provide) more coaches. We’re already getting inquiries from other cities,” said Elliott, whose model includes a proprietary, trauma-informed curriculum.

Each year, more than 26,000 foster care youth age out nationally and are no longer in the system. Only 10 percent leave with a high school diploma; 1 of 4 are incarcerated within two years.

Meanwhile, 86 percent of those youth said they wanted to attend college — by age 18, only half see college as an option; by age 24, only half are gainfully employed.

Among 10 women nationwide selected to L’Oreal Paris’ 2019 Women of Worth, Shante Elliott will get $10,000 for her work helping foster youth to graduate high school. She’s also in the running for $25,000 more, after the public chooses a national honoree from among the 10. Online voting runs through Nov. 15. The winner will be announced Dec. 4 in New York City.
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After college, Elliott worked three years for the University of North Carolina, administering college access programs for disadvantaged and under-represented students. Moving to Chicago in 2016, she spent two years as director of community engagement for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cook County, a nonprofit advocating for foster care youth.

“I was doing fulfilling work, but there was this void. I knew education is the greatest weapon to change the trajectory of one’s life,” said Elliott. “We were providing youth with advocates, but I wanted to get them diplomas and college degrees.”

In two years, TasselTurn has worked with more than 160 youth, notching an 80% improvement in their school attendance and a 100% re-enrollment rate.

“Above all, what the stability of adoption gave me is school stability — the ability to fall in love with education. Thus, I recognize my outcomes will not be the outcomes all foster children experience,” Elliott said.

“But while I can’t give every foster child an adoptive family, I do believe there are ways we can ensure they leave the foster system with a basic level of educational attainment, and the resources and skills to create the lives of their own dreams.”