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Sentenced to schools that fall short

When judges send foster kids to residential facilities with schools, they think they are giving them a better shot at getting an education. The result is often the opposite.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Shyara Hill spent her high school years as a foster child living in residential facilities and attending the schools attached to them.

The quality of education she received was so poor that, despite passing three years of high school, she was told that she would have to start all over again as a freshman when she entered the Philadelphia School District for her senior year.

While at one of the facilities, which are known as “on-ground schools,” Hill spent her time in a classroom with girls ranging in age from 8 to 20, where her math curriculum consisted of “addition and subtraction,” she said.

Hill and others like her often end up at these facilities’ schools without much consideration of the quality of academics at the school or the educational needs of the student – a problem that needs attention as the rate of children being removed from their homes increases in Philadelphia.

The rate at which Philadelphia removes children from their homes is the highest of any large city in the United States – about three times the national average – according to an August 2017 independent evaluation of the city’s child welfare system by the nonprofit Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group. The number of students removed from their homes in Philadelphia increased “drastically,” by 47 percent, from 2012 through 2016, according to the evaluation.

The report found that this trend is partially because the quality of services declined after casework – formerly done by social workers at the city’s Department of Human Services – was privatized. The city caseworkers were better-paid and generally better-qualified than their counterparts at the new Community Umbrella Organizations, leading to “high rates of staff turnover,” according to the evaluation.

But it also outlined a number of other causes, largely related to ambiguity within the legal process.

The evaluation calls for creating a single document that provides a coherent framework to guide the process for all agencies and courts involved. At the moment, there is no universal set of guidelines for placing students in the foster care system.

Most decisions in the process are made by a judge or another official within the justice system.

Without a universal set of guidelines and consistent parent involvement, judges are given discretion in deciding where to place students. That often leads to placements at on-ground schools in residential facilities that offer inconsistent qualities of education, according to advocates and researchers from the Education Law Center and the Juvenile Law Center.

Sometimes the quality of that education is so low that students re-enter the District without any transferable credits, after spending years going to school full-time. Other times, the quality of education is adequate, but the administration does not document courses properly.

“I’ve seen transcripts from schools where children are essentially completing worksheets and it’s unclear what classes they were taking,” said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center. “We have some children solely taking electives. Devereux Kanner [an on-ground school in West Chester] has classes that are not even credit-bearing.”

The quality of education even varies across schools run by the same company.

Hill said that the first on-ground school she attended, run by Adelphoi Village, offered classes using the same textbooks she had used as a freshman at Upper Darby High School before entering the system.

Her second placement was at another facility run by Adelphoi, where all the girls were in one classroom with one teacher, and the boys were in another classroom with one teacher.

“In math class, they were giving us addition and subtraction. We were reading little books – like books for middle schoolers – but I was in 11th grade,” Hill said. She tried to push back. “We told the teacher that this stuff was for kids, but they said that’s what the school gave us to do.”

“I didn’t like it,” she said. “I didn’t want to do the work because it wasn’t even something I had to think about.”

Truancy and foster care

Truancy is one of the most common charges landing students in one of these facilities. Unlike abused and neglected children, truant students wind up in the foster care system for reasons unrelated to their own safety. The evaluation found that these “non-safety” cases were another abnormally large group in Philadelphia.

Landing in the foster system because of truancy “discourages these kids who have already experienced so much trauma or chaos in their home lives,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center. “Instead of education lifting them up, it’s one more system undercutting them. You’re not solving a truancy problem by forcing a kid to be removed from their community and go to a subpar school, then expecting them to come home and successfully return to school after you failed to address the reason they were truant in the first place.”

Burdick said that some on-ground schools hire teachers who are not state-certified and that, as a group, these schools are monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Education only once every six years.

Advocates at the Ed Law Center and Juvenile Law Center all agree that the current research is clear: Placing truant students in foster care only makes them more likely to end up back in Truancy Court.

“Under the law, the default is that they should not be sent to an on-ground school. If they are attending [Science Leadership Academy] and they move to a group home in Bensalem, they have the right to continue attending SLA,” Burdick said. “The only reason they should be going to an on-ground school is if there is a court order that says they were required to attend that school.”

But on-ground schools enroll plenty of students without a court order. So why are judges recommending so many students attend these facilities?

Most judges first find a bed for the student at a residential facility, and they typically recommend that the student attend the closest school.

“The culture [among staff at residential facilities] is that the on-ground school is the default option. Youth and families don’t realize they should question that. Or it’s presented as a choice, but then they’re counseled out of the other options,” Burdick said.

“Students are told things like: ‘You have the right to go elsewhere, but if you go to this school, you’ll receive these things that other schools don’t offer. They may call the police at your neighborhood school, but [the on-ground school] won’t.’ It might be true, but they aren’t giving them the full picture.”

Where’s education?

Notably absent from the picture is a thorough consideration of the student’s educational needs.

“The process rarely includes a rigorous review of what that youth’s educational needs are,” said Katharine Vengraitis, a fellow in the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

“The judges often don’t have much information in front of them. … It’s particularly difficult to find an appropriate school when you’re working with a special education student, because a judge can make that decision [to use an on-ground school] in a minute,” Vengraitis said. “It’s very hard to argue against that when a judge wants to address the issue immediately. It’s frustrating because the education placement for a child is supposed to be a decision made with the [Individualized Education Program] team,” but that doesn’t happen consistently.

In Hill’s case, “the judge didn’t say anything about school. She just said you have to go to this facility, and then when I got there, that’s when [the facility’s staff] told me about the school,” Hill said. “They said everybody staying there had to go to that school.”

Colleen Swim, a staff attorney for the Support Center for Child Advocates, said the information about a student’s education needs is supposed to be presented to the judge by the umbrella agency’s caseworker – the same caseworkers who the evaluation found were inexperienced, overworked and underpaid.

“Depending on the type of case, [education] may not be the first thing they’re concerned with,” Swim said. “It’s easy to think of it as an afterthought when you’re combating parent drug use or domestic violence.”

If the umbrella agency’s caseworker hasn’t obtained the student’s academic records, Swim will do it herself, but most cases are handled by attorneys at the Defenders Association who have much larger caseloads. Sometimes attorneys fill that gap; other times a detailed report of the student’s academic needs falls through the cracks.

McInerney said she “rarely hears anything from [Community Umbrella Agency] caseworkers regarding the educational needs of a child.”

Swim said it’s “not uncommon” for the judge to have almost no information on a student’s educational needs.

A judge’s viewpoint

Flora Wolf, a Family Court judge who retired six years ago, said she received “very little information” about a student’s educational needs in a typical case. “There were many cases and very little time.”

She was always sure to ask for a child’s IEP, as she was trained to do, but even that is not required and many IEPs she saw were not up-to-date.

“My decisions were less about academics than about location and the little bit I knew anecdotally about the programs. … It would have been helpful to have presentations about a school’s qualifications,” Wolf said. “There is data collected about these schools, just as there is about private and public schools, but none of that came to us.”

She suggested that the state Department of Education could have provided a sheet of statistics about those schools.

“I think that information can be compiled right now, and it could be circulated. But I don’t think it is,” Wolf said.

Alex Dutton, a fellow with the Education Law Center, pointed to other places where the discretion of an official can determine a child’s future.

“A school administrator has to decide to refer a child to the school district’s Office of Attendance and Truancy, which will then work with DHS to get that family on an upcoming Truancy Court docket,” Dutton said. “Not every child that’s habitually truant gets referred to court. … The demographics in truancy court suggest that black families are disproportionately referred.”

Half of the District’s students are black, but black students make up nearly 63 percent of those referred to Truancy Court, and students of color make up 92 percent of all referrals.

“Exploring why is an important issue that I don’t think the District or the state have really explored, and I think it relates to a lack of access to high-quality schools and disciplinary systems that push students out of school,” Dutton said.

At least for truant students, the school’s decision is just the first in a long line of choices made by officials without guidance from universal rules or protocol.

“Then there’s the hearing officer’s decision in Truancy Court to refer a case to Family Court or to just dismiss the case. There are no standards to govern or explain when a hearing officer can dismiss a case,” Dutton said. “Sometimes it’s just because the student’s attendance has improved. … Other times it’s because of what a parent or family member says.”

The next decision lies with the Charging Unit of the city law department’s Child Welfare Unit.

“Whoever is deciding to file a petition for dependency at the city law department has discretion whether to bring that case or not,” also with no universal protocol, Dutton said.

Filing that petition for dependency is what puts the final decision – where to send the student – in the hands of a judge.

“If there are issues at home, judges may be quicker to send a kid to a residential facility,” Swim said. “I think judges’ thinking is that the kid only has to walk a short distance to school, so they are more likely to attend.”

Credit shortage

Eventually Hill got out of Adelphoi and found a group home in Philadelphia, where she tried to apply to enter her senior year of high school, only to find out she hadn’t accumulated even a single year’s worth of high school credits. She would have to start as a freshman.

“I was really mad because I thought I only had one more year to go,” Hill said. Entering a classroom filled with 14-year-olds, at the age of 18, she said, “felt like it was not an option.”

So she went to the nearest E3 center, run by JEVS Human Services and the Philadelphia Youth Network, where the staff helped her get her GED.

“That was the hardest part – getting back to schoolwork afterwards.”

Hill, now 24, is enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia as a criminal justice major. She said she’s been going back to the E3 center ever since she earned her GED to get help with college work and, more recently, for an event that helped her pick clothes for a job interview.

She hopes to work as a youth advocate for students involved in the foster care system.