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Q & A: How ‘on-ground schools’ work

Lack of oversight and limited coursework in this little-known system can derail students instead of helping them.

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

Every year, thousands of young people in foster care and other situations supervised by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services end up in “on-ground schools” – programs or schools that are located “on the grounds” of residential placements, including group homes, mental health facilities, and juvenile justice facilities.

Scattered across Pennsylvania, these private institutions can provide valuable, specialized services, but advocates say they can create problems, too. Limited curricula, inadequate credits, socially isolated classrooms, and a lack of effective oversight can leave students frustrated and underserved,and knock them off their pathways to graduation.

We sat down with Maura McInerney, an award-winning attorney and legal director with the Education Law Center, who won a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of children in foster care and has expertise on the rights of children in care. We asked her to explain more about “on-ground schools” and how agencies and educators can help them better serve students. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is an on-ground school, exactly? Do they look like typical schools?

A: There are hundreds of them. They can look and function like a regular school, or they can be a few children in a classroom doing worksheets or cyber school. Multiple grades in a small class are very common.

Q: Who licenses and monitors these schools?

A: The vast majority are licensed as private academic schools by the Pennsylvania Department of Education; the state does cyclical monitoring once every six years. A few residential schools are operated by school districts or intermediate units.

Q: Do they administer PSSAs or other standardized tests?

A: The private academic schools would not, and their curriculum does not need to align with that of a public school. If it’s run by a school district, it absolutely would.

Q: So, not much performance data for most of these schools?

A: That’s right. And those tests are there to ensure that all children receive a quality public education. In most cases, a private school is a voluntary school of choice for parents. Here, these are publicly placed children, ordered by the court, but we lose that standard of accountability.

Q: Do school districts play any role matching students to educational programs?

A: Many cases are assigned by DHS, but they can be court-ordered, or placed through the mental health system. In a very small number of cases, they may be placed by a school district to meet particular needs – such as a student with disabilities.

Q: How about program quality – are school districts responsible for monitoring that?

A: If a child has disabilities, the local district where that child is placed – what we call the “host” district – becomes responsible for quality. But for the child who is not disabled, the on-ground school functions like any other private academic school – the local school district is not responsible for the educational needs of that child.

Q: But districts pay the tuition, right? If a student from Philadelphia is placed in a Lehigh Valley facility, it’s the School District of Philadelphia that pays?

A: Correct. There are different types of licenses – for an “approved private school,” the state pays 60 percent of the tuition and the school district pays 40 percent. But for the district, that’s the end of that relationship – it’s a financial duty.

Q: Based on the cases you’ve taken up over the years, what sorts of problems crop up for students at these schools?

A: The quality of the education in an on-ground school is very often inferior to what they’d receive in a public school. They don’t have the same opportunities or the same curricula. Ninth-grade algebra ends up being second-grade worksheets. Then, when they return to their regular neighborhood school, they’re so far behind that they give up and drop out. That’s devastating for a child in foster care who really needs their education to be a lifeline.

Q: Is it true that credit transfers are an issue? That some students don’t get the academic credits they need to stay on track to graduate?

A: It’s a huge problem. We have 500 different school districts, 500 different district requirements. And a neighborhood school is only required to accept credits from other public schools. They can say, “I don’t accept any of your credits because they’re from a private institution.”

There’s even one on-ground school that does not award credits at all! This drives more children to give up and drop out than any other scenario I can think of.

Q: Aren’t students placed in residential facilities entitled to go to a regular public school in that “host” district?

A: Yes. That’s their entitlement by law. But in many instances, judges require that children attend the on-ground school, because the students have a history of truancy and the judges want to make sure they actually attend school.

It’s also a huge problem that we don’t have enough school districts who have inclusive programs for students with disabilities. As a result, children get placed in the more isolated setting.

Q: Of the various adults in these kids’ lives, is anyone specifically tasked with looking out for their education?

A: These children all need to have an “educational decision maker,” an EDM, who might be assigned by the court or in some cases by a school district. A biological or foster care parent may play that role.

But children in residential placements often have nobody who’s playing that role. This was part of the impetus for the 2011 juvenile court ruling that ensures that an EDM is appointed for every child in foster care who lacks one. In Philadelphia, Court Appointed Special Advocates, CASA, has been serving this role – they serve 60 children, but they don’t have enough EDMs.

Q: Sounds like no shortage of chances for a kid to fall through the cracks.

A: Here’s an example. I represented a child who’d been represented as having special education needs. It turned out she’d attended an on-ground school that was licensed as a special education school. When she showed up, they said, “OK, we’ll have to identify you as having special needs because that’s how we’re licensed.” We were able to get that expunged from her record.

We filed another complaint a few years ago for a child who’d bounced around from one placement to another, and never had a surrogate parent, and therefore everyone agreed her Individual Education Plan looked fine! Because there was no one to advocate for that child.

These are children who need teachers with significant experience, who can provide them with the support and instruction and interventions that we know can be effective. They need more people paying more attention to their IEPs, not fewer.

Q: What’s all this like emotionally for these young people? Why do you think it’s important to integrate them into regular classrooms where possible?

A: We need to recognize that children who are in group homes have often experienced many forms of rejection in their lives – first by biological parents, then perhaps as they’ve gone from one foster home to another. They’ve experienced significant trauma. They need greater support.

Instead, we’re placing them in an isolated setting where they’re not experiencing what they should, socially or academically. We’re re-traumatizing these children in many ways.

Q: What are some things that the big state agencies can do – Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Department of Human Services?

A: We need PDE to do real monitoring of the schools that it licenses. Another approach is to do what California has done – require all these on-ground schools to offer the same public school curriculum and standards and requirements as the local public school.

And PDE needs to look at the credit transfer issue. If you’re able to meet state standards, you should be able to get a diploma.

DHS is already going in and out of these residential facilities, checking to see if there are enough light bulbs and that sort of thing. So look at the educational programs too! Are they using restraints? Is there instruction going on? Are children receiving worksheets that are on grade level?

Q: What about the courts?

A: Judges need to ask questions: “How is this child doing in school? What is the plan for graduating?” In other states, the court calls up their report cards while the child is in court. Some states just give each youth a copy of their educational records on a lanyard, on a thumb drive, so they can take it with them and say, “Here are my records.” We need to do more of that.

Q: And what about school districts like Philadelphia’s?

A: I can think of three things. First, home districts should facilitate an IEP meeting before a student goes to a residential facility, to determine whether that child should go to the local public school or the on-ground school.

Second, home districts should be involved in the discharge planning for children leaving an on-ground school, so they can be placed in an appropriate classroom the minute they return to the district.

And third, home districts should ensure that each child in foster care has a graduation plan in place. What credits do they need? Can they waive credits that may be otherwise required?

Q: Finally, how about students? Can they learn to be better advocates for their own needs?

A: It’s funny you should ask – I just did a know-your-rights training for children in foster care, and they were so excited to find out that they had rights! The right to attend IEP meetings, to have access to the full range of educational opportunities. Some children experiencing homelessness have a right to individual college counseling, which they didn’t know.

So yes, we should do more know-your-rights training for students, and we should really listen to them. It’s their education. That’s the bottom line. They need to feel that they are a part of these educational decisions. The less we listen to them, the more likely they are to give up.

Bill Hangley Jr., @BillHangley, is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.