This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Children in foster care tend to struggle academically, either because of what happened that got them into the care system or what happened once they got there. Educationally speaking, they have two strikes against them, and preventing a third strike is challenging.
To attack this difficult problem, parent coaches from the University of Delaware have been fanning out through the northern part of that state for more than a decade to help foster parents relate to their infants and toddlers.
In 10 weekly one-hour sessions, they help the foster parents provide a nurturing, reinforcing environment.
“They’re commenting on what the child did,” says Mary Dozier, the university professor who originated the Attachment and Biobehaviors Catch-up (ABC) program. “We want the child to have a successful experience.”
Parents are taught to be in constant contact with the child. Timeouts for behavior issues, for example, are never used.
Delaware’s ABC program is not restricted to foster families, but comparisons of toddlers in foster care who had participated in it with a control group that had not showed greater cognitive flexibility and ability to regulate their emotions at 48 months, keys to success in school.
Across the country and at the other end of the age spectrum, the Graduation Success Program at the Treehouse agency in Washington state attacks this education problem by working with foster children in middle and high school to provide individualized academic success plans for each of them.
Of 80 high school seniors involved in the Graduation Success program last year, 54 graduated. That’s an on-time graduation rate of 68 percent, 15 percentage points higher than the state average for youth in foster care, according to Education Lab at the Seattle Times.
“Children in foster care experience lower academic achievement, lower standardized test scores, higher rates of grade retention and higher dropout rates than their non-foster peers,” says Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, citing a 2014 study by the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Youth in foster care who drop out of school are far more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, receive public assistance and become homeless or incarcerated.”
Part of the problem is children moving from one foster home to another.
“For every placement move, there’s about a three-month loss of education,” says Cynthia Figueroa, commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.
And school-age children in foster care were changing schools an average of 2.7 times a year, according to the PolicyLab study, which was based on data from the 2011-12 school year.
Figueroa hopes that the ongoing project of decentralizing the human services agency will allow more children to remain in the same school, even when moving to different foster care arrangements.
Under the city’s Improving Outcomes for Children initiative, which started in 2012, case management is being handled through 10 Community Umbrella Agencies, so that more cases can be taken care of at the neighborhood level.
Some education advocates have questioned whether the umbrella agencies’ staff is up to dealing with the caseload yet. And in a recent internal review, the Human Services Department gave grades of “D” to seven of the umbrella agencies and “C” to the remaining three.
McInerney says umbrella agency workers need increased training on educational needs and rights. And she noted that a recent outside evaluation of the decentralization effort by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, a nonprofit technical assistance organization, did not include recommendations on education.
Another education advocate, PolicyLab deputy director Meredith Matone, cites a need for increased availability of trauma-informed behavioral health interventions and classroom management, given that foster children are more likely than the typical student to need these services.
Figueroa notes that although the Department of Human Services and the school system have different core missions – the safety of children vs. their education – she sees them as increasingly intertwined.
Figueroa was deputy director of the Human Services Department for more than two years, ending in 2010, and during that time, she was instrumental in setting up the Education Support Center at School District headquarters for children in the agency’s care. The supports offered include in-home services. The center also works with Juvenile Court.
The Department of Human Services, noting that children in out-of-home placements have double the dropout rates nationally compared with their peers, gives all foster parents a guide to their responsibilities regarding a child’s education.
For example, foster parents are told that if the child is not already enrolled in school, he or she can be enrolled immediately without all documentation and paperwork, which can follow.
“Even if the biological/adoptive parents remain involved in the child’s education,” the guide states, “the foster parents should be included in the educational process.”
One area where Figueroa hopes to make major improvements is in data-sharing between the School District and the Human Services Department.
Allegheny County provides one example of a merged data system between the school district and the county human services agency that enables caseworkers and other child welfare staff to quickly obtain the education records of foster youth. For example, if a child has three unexcused absences from school, his or her caseworker is automatically alerted.
Philadelphia does not have a merged data system, although there is a data-sharing agreement in place that allows the Department of Human Services to pull individual-level data, such as school attendance by child.
A more sophisticated system could also give the agencies the capacity for research and for using those results to make system-wide improvements. This might include, for example, determining which schools are more successful with foster children.
“What’s the best thing for us to track?” Figueroa asks. “There are really difficult decisions we’re making on a daily basis.”
Although she declined to give a firm time estimate, she said, “It’s doable and we’re committed to doing it.”
Paul Jablow is a freelance writer and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who contributes regularly to the Notebook.