This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Foster children in Philadelphia face obstacle after obstacle in their quest to obtain a high-quality education.
Philadelphia had 8,020 children in foster care in 2016, according to the State of Child Welfare 2017, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children report. That is a small fraction of the 200,000 students attending District and charter schools, but still a significant number.
And a wider spectrum of young people find themselves in the system, not just those who have been mistreated or neglected.
“Our nation’s child welfare systems were built to address specific issues: abuse and neglect,” said Tracey Feild, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group.
“But today, data indicate that more teens are coming into care for reasons unrelated to maltreatment. Child welfare directors are telling us that often teens are landing in child welfare placements because they can’t get along with their parents.
Or because of the teens’ challenging behaviors, such as defying their parents, being truant from school, running away, abusing alcohol and drugs, or engaging in risky sexual or other activities that threaten their well-being or safety.”
The great majority of foster children in Philadelphia still attend neighborhood schools, and their circumstances vary widely. Some may be placed for only a short time due to a family emergency or tragedy; others spend a longer period at just one home.
And then there is the group that constantly moves around. And as they move from placement to placement – and many foster children do – they move from school to school.
These are the most ill-served. This edition of the Notebook includes heartbreaking stories of foster children struggling to find some kind of success, and from child advocates who believe social workers, judges and educators could do way more to help those children.
With each school move, students’ chances of graduating plunge by 10 percent, according to a report from the Philadelphia Youth Network.
And problems in transferring credits and transcripts and pulling together documents – birth certificates, Social Security cards, IDs – follow them everywhere.
Although Philadelphia has made some good starts on efforts to improve the care and education for foster youth, there’s no question that other parts of the United States do a far better job, and the city and state would do well to borrow some of those ideas.
For instance, children placed by the courts – for family problems, or truancy, or misbehavior – can wind up in residential or “on-ground schools,” which are poorly regulated by the state government, and sometimes badly run. Children who come through those schools can wind up years behind where they’d be if they got a proper education. The city’s paying a big chunk of that education bill.
Another key improvement would be computer systems that talk to one another – so judges can know which schools do the best job for foster children, so researchers can get the information they need to pinpoint problem areas in the system, and so schools can be ready and welcoming when foster children arrive.
While other areas have found ways to blend databases, Philadelphia and the state have been painstakingly slow to make progress on this.
For instance, a data-sharing agreement allows the Department of Human Services to pull individual student data from the School District on such matters as attendance. But it is cumbersome; the systems themselves are not compatible.
Compare that to Allegheny County, which has a merged data system that allows quick retrieval of student records and sends alerts to caseworkers when trouble is brewing.
Other states have sophisticated systems in which students have all their records on a thumb drive attached to a lanyard they can wear, giving judges and educators instant access to vital information.
Under the current disjointed system, many foster children may think they are close to graduating, only to discover that they are not.
“Credit transfer is a big issue,” said Kate Burdick, an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center.
Roberta Trombetta, CEO of the C.B. Community School, which enrolls only foster children, said students are sometimes misled about how much of their education they have completed. It is not uncommon to have students with, for instance, 17 credits who think they are closing in on the 23.5-credit requirement for graduation.
But then school officials discover that most of those credits are in electives. Without the required years of English, math, science, social studies and a language, she said, they are still miles from getting a diploma.
“The kids are faked out by needing 23.5 credits, and they don’t understand what they really need credit-wise or skill-wise,” Trombetta said.
And if they end up being placed in institutions, that leads to more problems. Family Court judges often think that sending truant students to institutions with attached schools will guarantee their attendance.
But these so-called “on-ground” schools are minimally regulated and often of dubious quality. “The courses themselves are not the kind of challenging courses these kids deserve,” Trombetta said. Often, when students return to a neighborhood school, “the bottom drops out,” she said.
Legally, students have the right to attend the public schools where the institution is located, but that requirement is rarely enforced.
Some advocates object to the “on-ground” schools also because they segregate foster children from others.
Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student support services, pointed out that the District has no say in these placements, which happens through DHS and the courts.
But it foots 40 percent of the bill. She said the total line item for the subset of students sent to these placements is $24 million annually. Not all of that is for foster children; that group also includes those involved in the juvenile justice system and others.
Lynch pointed out this figure is far lower than it was just five years ago, when it was $65 million. She attributed that to efforts to reduce the numbers of children placed outside the city.
And, like the advocates, she is chagrined that the state Department of Education conducts little oversight of these schools.
“I would say that overall I think there is recognition on the part of the leadership of DHS, Family Court, the School District and parole and probation that the most ideal situation would be for children who are sent outside Philadelphia to be served inside the city,” Lynch said. “This is where they live and can be best supported.”
Advocates said that, once foster children leave Philadelphia, either for a foster family or an institutional placement, they can easily fall off the radar. The District is not always efficient in sending their records to these placements, advocates say.
Many of these students have nobody advocating for them. Foster parents “receive no training on education at all,” said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for students with disabilities.
“Education decision-makers” are appointed when there is no parent or foster parent able to fulfill that role.
Another effort to serve these students more efficiently was a major administrative change two years ago – to rely on private, neighborhood-based community umbrella agencies to work with families served by DHS, many of whom are foster children.
But things are off to a rocky start, according to the report card issued in October by the city’s human services agency.
When the city gauged the quality of work done by the 10 umbrella agencies working in the city, only three earned a grade of C, and seven got D’s.
Things got worse in the category that includes education: three D’s and seven F’s.
The umbrella agencies have broad areas of responsibility, serving an average of 10,000 children and youths. They have made some progress, according to the report issued by Cynthia Figueroa, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, for the year that ended June 30, 2017.
• 48 percent of children in the human-services system live with a family member, up from 32 percent in 2013.
• 56 percent of children live within 5 miles of their home, up from 46 percent in 2013.
• Only 13 percent of children live in group homes and institutions.
However, the ratings category that covers assessments of a child’s situation, health and education ranked dead last in quality.
The city government turned to community umbrella agencies because it believed a neighborhood approach to child welfare services would help the children and their families more than the old bureaucratic system.
In sum, Figueroa’s report says, “While there have been a few bumps with implementation, we are making progress and are well positioned to meet the ongoing challenges of working with children, youth and families.”
Dale Mezzacappa is a contributing editor at the Notebook.