In the turbulent lives of many of the half million foster kids in the US, education isn't a priority.
In Jose's world, not many people have been a constant. He can't remember exactly how many foster homes he lived in after going into state care six years ago, but puts the number at least nine or 10. Usually, each move meant a change of schools, too, as he bounced from Chicago's West Side - "more ghetto" - to suburban Evanston - his least favorite - to the city's South Side. He grew close to his old case worker, but six months ago she left the department.Skip to next paragraph
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"She put her heart into it," Jose remembers, lounging in the group home where he currently lives and hopes to stay. "When I'd be suspended for 10 days, she'd go back to the school and get it reduced to four or five."
It's a subject on his mind since, at the moment, he's in the middle of his second 10-day suspension. Already, he knows he'll need to retake math and biology in summer school. He fell behind at his last foster home, he says, "because the parents there didn't influence me to do the work."
In some ways, Jose's a typical teenager. He has posters on his wall of the Bulls and rapper DMX, and he dreams of going to college. He sometimes mumbles and slouches, but then lights up when he talks about his poetry, one of the few things that he's proud of.
"When I experience something new, I write about it in poetry form, and it takes my feelings out," he explains, revealing an unexpected softness beneath the "streetwise" exterior. Still, Jose's talent for poetry and the trauma he's been through won't be enough to help him graduate and attend Columbia College - his current goal - if his grades don't improve and the suspensions don't stop. His caseworker worries he's been labeled a "behavior problem," and he and Jose are contemplating another transfer.
While there's no such thing as a "typical" foster-care experience, the challenges that Jose has faced - the frequent moves, the inconsistency, the constant breaking of relationships - are hardly unusual. And that lack of stability plays out at school as well as at home.
As a group, foster kids test far behind their peers, and are more likely to drop out, repeat grades, be in special-ed classes, and be suspended or expelled. And education has often been a low priority for child-welfare agencies, most of which are concerned more with their children's safety and finding them placement.
But education, some are starting to realize, may be almost as fundamental a goal, especially for older kids who are likely never to find a permanent home. When kids age out of the system, college, a high-school diploma, or basic job skills can mean the difference between achieving self-sufficiency and returning to a cycle of disadvantage.
"This is a group of kids who don't necessarily have the family supports so that when they leave school and don't find a job they can go live with their mom or their aunt," says Jill Chaifetz, director of Advocates for Children, a New York-based group that works on behalf of disadvantaged kids to ensure their access to education. "They need to be more independent and have more life skills than the average kids, and often they have less. We see education as the key to success."
Some of the reasons many foster children struggle in school are fairly obvious. Multiple moves among homes - and schools - are common, especially in the children's first few years in foster care. Switching schools can mean lost records and credits, incorrect placements, and sometimes weeks or months out of school altogether, on top of the disorientation that can come with a new environment.
Communication is another problem area. Between foster parents, caseworkers, educational advocates, and school personnel, it's not always clear who's supposed to do or tell what to whom. Some kids who act up for a few weeks get classified with chronic behavior disorders, when the school has no clue they've just been taken from their parents. Caseworkers often don't know how their wards are doing in school, or what special services they may be eligible for. Some children are removed from a school with no notice, when a week or two more might have made a huge difference for important tests or credits.