This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As the number of students returning to the School District after out-of-Philadelphia residential placements for juvenile justice, mental illness, substance abuse, or other forms of care has grown, District officials say, they have improved the systems that make the transition back to the classroom smoother.
“The needs of children coming back are increasing,” said Karyn T. Lynch, chief of student support services, the highest-ranking District official overseeing non-academic services.
The primary change is the hiring of five case managers who work on reintegration at the school level with students, parents or guardians, agencies, and school officials, such as counselors. So far, the case manager program focuses only on students returning from placements due to mental health and substance abuse, not those who had been in juvenile detention.
“This is a very positive step in the right direction,” said Maura McInerney, legal director for the Education Law Center, a Philadelphia advocacy group that works to obtain access to quality public education for all, but particularly for vulnerable students. “I think it’s a terrific advancement.”
Earlier this year, the Education Law Center, the Juvenile Law Center, and other advocates held meetings to draw up a protocol that addressed transitions for all students returning to the District. School District officials attended the meetings, including one in September where the group presented its recommended protocol, McInerney said. Meanwhile, the District drew up its own procedures.
McInerney and Kate Burdick, senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, said that the District had not shared the new protocol with the advocates, but that they have heard that it is less detailed.
McInerney and Burdick would also like to see an expansion of the transition program to include young people returning from detention centers or other facilities dealing with delinquency.
The program began this year and has only been in place about six weeks, said District spokesman Lee Whack. He said it was too soon to tell whether the caseworkers, led by clinical coordinator Johanna Agnew, had improved transition outcomes.
The District declined to make any school principals available to discuss the effects of the change at the school level and to explain how they met the challenges of reintegrating students from juvenile justice placements into their schools. The District also declined to say which schools received the most students returning from placements or what percentage of the returning students had been involved with the juvenile justice system.
“Knocked off track”
With the enhanced transition process, the District “seems to have recognized what a dire issue this is,” said Burdick of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which advocates nationally for youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
“Historically, we know that too often, students are knocked off track” when they are “highly mobile with their schooling,” she said, particularly when “continuity is the key to their success.”
Sometimes students are placed in facilities with poor or non-existent education options. Course designs are not compatible. Some may not use a credit-based system for advancement as Philadelphia does.
“It is utterly devastating,” she said, when students work hard at their new facility and “they think they are doing everything they are supposed to do. They may even be getting good grades and think they are getting close to getting a diploma.”
Then, she said, they return to Philadelphia and find that the requirements aren’t compatible, so their efforts are wasted. The disappointment can lead to them becoming disengaged from school, she said.
What makes the whole situation more complicated is the funding and governance structure. The Pennsylvania Department of Education policy is for children to be educated in the least-restrictive option – usually a public school – unless they are in a detention facility.
Except for public and personal safety situations, the state wants students to be taught in public schools, as opposed to in-house educational facilities. Even so, some students wind up being educated in those facilities. The Philadelphia School District must pay for each student’s schooling, no matter where the child is placed. But the District doesn’t oversee the educational and academic services offered.
The number of students transitioning back to the District from these placements has been increasing: from 836 students in the 2015-16 school year to 991 in 2016-17 and then 1,013 in 2017-18, according to figures provided by Whack.
On a public policy level, “we’re paying millions of dollars to reimburse the cost of their education, and then they come back and they don’t have the credits,” Burdick said.
The intent of the state’s policy is to make school as normal as possible, but, Lynch said, the process can exacerbate existing trauma.
“They are away from their family, their friends, their support services,” she said. They may be in a placement in rural Pennsylvania where “people in the community don’t look like them, don’t appreciate them and don’t serve them well.”
Not only are familiar supports lacking, but “you don’t know how long you are going to be there,” making it difficult to engage, Lynch said.
“You take a child that has been traumatized and then you traumatize them more,” she said. “At the same time, you expect them to function there and thrive. I don’t think you establish the best opportunity and conditions for this to happen.”
The optimum approach would be more treatment facilities of all types within the District, so that students could be treated at home, remain in their schools and stay connected with community supports, Lynch and advocates agree.
But until then, the key to the entire process is discharge planning.
When the District learns that a student is returning, one of three officials, known as “transitional liaisons” assembles a team of relevant support providers to determine which school should receive the child, according to Lynch and Rachel Holzman. As deputy chief of student rights and responsibilities, Holzman oversees the process under Lynch’s direction.
Depending on the situation, the team could include a probation officer as well as officials from city’s Department of Human Services and Community Behavioral Health, a nonprofit that provides mental health and substance abuse services under contract to Philadelphia. Officials from other agencies could also be involved, as could officials from the District’s special education program who draw up Individualized Education Programs.
No one was immediately available from the juvenile probation system to comment.
Holzman said the team, with parent/guardian and student input, evaluates where the child would be most successful. The child’s former school might not be the first choice, particularly if there’s a history of trouble. The transition liaisons would also examine the educational services received outside the District, down to the credit and course descriptions, to see which school’s academic offerings would provide the best fit.
Once a child is assigned to a school, the case manager component takes over if the child is coming from a residential treatment facility, as opposed to a detention center or a facility for delinquents.
Lately, Lynch and Holzman said, they’ve been able to forge a better agreement with Community Behavioral Health, the placement agency, to receive educational information and progress reports further ahead of students’ discharges, so that school assignments can be completed earlier without gaps. It’s been a huge improvement.
“It’s very student-specific,” Holzman said. “Some kids make a smooth transition. Some kids have more bumps along the road.”
The Notebook’s coverage of juvenile justice and the foster care systems is made possible by a grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund.