Lost in the shuffle

Consistent education falls behind in a system that moves kids often and focuses on safety

Benita is a ninth-grader with a poised manner and a mane of dark hair that she pulls neatly back behind her ears into a pony tail. But nothing about Benita's academic experience has been tidy. She has attended seven schools, twice switching schools midyear.

"Each school teaches different things, and some are much harder than others," she says. In some subjects she has fallen behind. "There's nothing to do but deal with it," she says with a small shrug.

Benita lives in a foster home. She is one of more than a half-million children in the United States in foster care - up from 340,000 in 1988.

But despite the surge in the number such children, little new effort has gone into keeping them on track academically. Many children in foster care move frequently from home to home, and bounce from school to school. Bureaucratic snarls sometimes cause gaps of weeks or months between enrollments. Yet scant official attention is paid to ensuring a quality academic experience.

When it comes to dealing with children in foster care, "safety is a priority," says Jennifer Nelson, director of Voices of Youth, a New York-based group that encourages children in foster care to speak about their experiences. "But nobody's focused on school."

The result has been the creation of a group of kids only too likely to stumble academically. Some experts worry too that an increased focus on standardized testing as the key to academic progress will now only push these children further out of the mainstream. In addition, public schools in some parts of the country are recently showing a greater resistance to accepting foster children, fearing that their weak academic performances could pull down average test scores.

"I hear [President] Bush talking about no child being left behind, and all I can think is that here are kids who have absolutely historically been left behind for generations," says Jap-Ji Keating, director of education for Treehouse, a Seattle nonprofit that provides tutoring services for children in foster care.

In Washington State, Dr. Keating says, only a third of the children in foster care graduate from high school. Nationwide, it is estimated that slightly fewer than half make it through 12th grade.

One of the main focuses of Treehouse has been to provide academic tutors dedicated to helping children in foster care catch up academically. Currently, Treehouse has placed 15 teachers in Seattle public schools to work specifically with foster children. Keating says most of them respond quickly and positively to the extra help, often drinking in the adult attention. Last year, the group was able to boost the reading scores of the children they worked with by an average of 1-3/4 grade levels. Math, spelling, and writing scores increased by 1-1/2 grade levels.

"Even after three months, attention is better and joy at coming to school is greater," says Keating. But she remains frustrated that attempts to improve the academic experiences of children in foster care tend to be patchwork efforts.

In most states, the social workers who deal with these children have little or no contact with their schools. "The greatest need is for the state educational systems and state social service systems to begin talking to each other and to create systems of services so kids are not lost in the cracks," Keating says.

Communication with foster parents is often poor as well. According to a recent report by Advocates for Children of New York, 80 percent of foster parents surveyed reported they had never been advised of free preschool and prekindergarten programs available for these children.

There are some particularly sad ironies to failing to make education a priority for foster children. For one thing, children who have no family networks or financial resources find that a good education is the best hope of achieving a toehold in the adult world.

But also, for some foster children school is the most stable and positive component of their lives. "It's not just the educational issues around school, it's the clubs and the social activities," Ms. Nelson says.

When these kids are required to frequently change schools, "they lose their best friends and everything they know."

Cassie is a seventh-grader in foster care who, like Benita, participates in a pair of programs in Massachusetts - Speak Out Team and The Lost and Found Company - aimed at getting children in foster care to tell their stories to wider audiences.

Like Benita, Cassie has changed schools almost every academic year. "Every time, I feel like I have no friends," she says of the frequent changes. "There are groups and I don't fit in."

As for the academics, says Cassie, a petite girl, "Sometimes I go into a school and I have no idea what they're talking about." Embarrassed to draw further attention to herself - most of the time she is the only child in foster care in the class - she says, "I used to just pretend I knew all that stuff."

Benita says she had her own dodge. When she entered a math class one year and saw that all the other students had mastered long division - a skill she had never been taught - she simply feigned illness and went to the nurse's office whenever the subject came up.

Eventually her teacher caught on and re-assigned her to an easier class - but not until the school year was almost over. Educational records indicating a weakness in math had followed Benita to the school, but, "They didn't check my file or ask me." With an overloaded social worker she rarely sees, Benita says, "I have no one to advocate for me."

Some states and cities are working harder to tighten the lines of communication that surround children in foster care. In New York City, a recently completed database will allow officials to track the academic achievement and attendance of children in foster care. Seattle is also working on such a system.

In California, a program has been instituted to support the educational needs of foster children on a statewide basis, while Massachusetts is investing about $1 million to improve ties between foster parents and school systems.

Adults who work with foster children say they encounter pockets of success. "There are some places out there doing an amazing job with these kids, even under difficult circumstances," says Thomas Parrish, one of the researchers who recently prepared a report on the educational placement of foster children in group homes for the California Department of Education. "But when it comes to repairing the system, we've got an awful lot of work to do."

Christine, a Massachusetts 10th-grader participating in the same programs as Cassie and Benita, left foster care at the age of 7 when she was adopted. But she hasn't forgotten how it felt to shuffle from home to home and change school four times by the time she reached the second grade. "It's really hard always losing friends and stuff, and you feel embarrassed to ask for help," she says, shaking a head covered with hair braided into tidy corn rows.

If she could change the system in some way, she says, it would be to ask the adults who surround such children to develop greater empathy.

"In two weeks they're like, 'Oh, you should be caught up by now,' but you're not," she says. "I would like them to be more sensitive and to think about the kids."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

Groups that support children in foster care

Orphan Foundation of America

Reston, Va.

571-203-0270

www.orphan.org

Helps with college scholarships for children in foster care.

Advocates for Children

New York

212-947-9779

www.advocatesforchildren.org

Works to ensure equal education services for all New York City children, including children in foster care who may not have adult advocates.

Treehouse

Seattle

206-767-7000

www.treehouse4kids.org

Offers tutoring, scholarships, and other support for children in foster care.

The Lost and Found Company

Boston

781-477-9296

thelostandfoundco@prodigy.net

Teenagers in foster care and adoptees use the arts to learn to express themselves and share their experiences with a wider audience.

Youth Communication

New York

212-279-0708

www.youthcomm.org

Publishes a magazine for and about children in foster care and works to raise awareness about the challenges they face.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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