Group Schools Hill Staffers on Foster Youths’ Educational Struggles

A national working group conducted back-to-back briefings with Capitol Hill staffers on Jan. 28th, urging them to consider how the federal government can help improve the flow and quality of education for children in the foster care system.

The National Working Group on Foster Care and Education started on the Senate side of the hill for a morning session at the Russell Building, then headed down to Rayburn for a meeting with staffers for members of the House of Representatives.

Attendees heard from four speakers who discussed the nexus of foster care and the school system from different angles:

  • Kayla VanDyke, a former foster youth and current senior at Hamline University in Minnesota
  • Dianna Walters, a policy associate at the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative
  • William Myles, assistant superintendant of Cincinnati Public School
  • Anne Marie-Ambrose, commission of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services

About half of foster youths graduate from high school, briefing host Jessica Feierman told attendees. Worse than that, the number that graduate from four-year universities is below 10 percent.

Foster youths are two times as likely to be absent from school, and the average 17-year-old in foster care reads at a seventh grade level, according to a factsheet circulated at the briefing.

The speakers were light on specifics as far as how Congress and the executive branch could change things. But attendees could certainly draw several conclusions about the reasons why foster youths often struggle with school and college:

Lack of stability

Depending what research you read, somewhere between half and three-quarters new foster youths have to change schools when they enter care. For some, that is just the beginning.

Walters recounted a young intern for Jim Casey who changed schools 25 times while in care. At the briefing, VanDyke said she had attended ten different schools, including four high schools, while accommodating seven foster home moves between age four and eighteen.

VanDyke maintained good grades and scores in reading and verbal skills, but struggled in math and science. She said her low ACT score on math is likely what prevented her from being accepted to the University of Minnesota, which was once her dream as the first college attendee in her family.

Ambrose said DHS is attempting to address school stability by fighting its underlying cause: frequent and far movement of children in care.

“We try to keep them in their home or neighborhood” by “incentivizing” DHS contracting partners to recruit good homes inside the city, she said. “In Philadelphia, some youths are sent 600 miles away and undermines the child welfare system. And we do it for convenience, not because it makes sense.”

Credit Movement

If the lack of continuity in school lessons is the direct consequence of frequent school movement, the tangential one is credit acceptance. All four presenters referenced the frequent struggle that foster youths face in keeping their academic records current, which can lead to lost credits, delays in enrollment, or even repeat years in school.

Presenters suggested that the presence of school liaisons for foster youths, whether they were school officials or stationed caseworkers, could be effective in helping with moves from one school to another. Myles said Cincinnati’s policy is to accept the student, and then deal with any issues over credits and records.

California has recently moved toward a system that permits partial credit awards for progress stunted by school changes. Click here to read a recent report on that model.

Absent Adults and Voiceless Youths

Those liaisons might help make up for the fact that other adults involved in the lives of foster youths can be absent on education needs, among other things. Myles said that while the liaison-student connection has been made in Cincinnati, the attempts to forge connections between the schools with foster parents has often been met with indifference and “excuses” from the parents.

VanDyke said she had actually never met several of her caseworkers face to face, and didn’t even know she had an assigned lawyer until she turned 16. She had protested school changes to caseworkers on more than one occasion, but “that went unheeded.”

Her further observation on the matter illuminated the lack of youth empowerment in some child welfare systems.

“At that age, I totally thought that was reasonable,” VanDyke said. “I didn’t realize that the youth voice is supposed to inform the process.”

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of the Chronicle of Social Change

Note: Fostering Media Connections is a member of the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.