In the turbulent lives of many of the half million foster kids in the US, education isn't a priority.
CHICAGO — 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.
"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.
"In the child-welfare system, it's sometimes a challenge of 'who's on first,' " says Mark Courtney, director of the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children, which has done extensive research on foster children and education. "The foster parent is supposed to get the kid to school, but who takes the initiative of enrolling him, who takes the lead in making sure he gets special education, in transferring his records? Everyone's on a different page."
In many ways, of course, the mechanical challenges like communication and mobility seem the easy ones to tackle. Far more basic - and daunting - are the hurdles foster children face simply by virtue of their past. Most have a history of abuse or neglect and a struggle with feelings of abandonment, and have a hard time trusting any one. School can be one of the few sanctuaries in their lives, but with such basic disruptions elsewhere, focusing on academics is tough.
Even for foster children who find placement with relatives - often the first solution welfare agencies seek - and don't have to move around, that basic absence of a parent is an enormous struggle, say experts.
"They're just not with their mom or dad. They hear other kids say, 'My mom did this for me,' and they have to say "my aunt or my grandma did,' " says Lo Patrick, a social worker with Project STRIVE, a Chicago-based program that works with foster children in schools. "It's not something you can tell just by looking at them, but it's this hidden trauma."
Take Princess, a senior at South Shore High School in Chicago, who went to live with her aunt when she was 5. Her life has been more stable than some - her aunt ultimately adopted her, her twin brother, and their other set of twin siblings. But her parents "still be on my mind," she says.
Emotionally, she clings to shreds, like her happiest childhood memory, a day when her parents took her to visit a great-great grandma. "We went to a parade beforehand," she says with a smile.
Still, Princess and her sister, unlike their two brothers, have stayed in school, and Princess is expected to graduate this spring.
That's a feat that's sadly rare for many foster-care children. In a recent study Chapin Hall did of Chicago public school students, just 32 percent of the foster-care students they tracked over a five-year period graduated, compared to 59 percent of regular Chicago students. More than a third had repeated a grade, nearly 70 percent had received a suspension, and 18 percent had been expelled.
Statistics like these are helping spur more attention to education for foster youth, especially in states, like Illinois, that have drastically reduced their foster-care rolls. Illinois's success in getting kids adopted or reunited with their parents has meant a reevaluation of the state's responsibility to its remaining 19,000 wards who, most likely, will be in state care until they age out. Being a temporary caretaker that keeps kids safe isn't enough; the state needs to be a parent.
Nationally, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 marked a turning point for how the government views the children in its care, establishing regular reviews of state child- welfare agencies and including some attention to so-called "well-being outcomes" like education, along with its more basic standards of permanency and safety.
These days, child-welfare workers are much more likely to make stability - keeping the child in the same school and neighborhood - a priority, says Shay Bilchik, president of the Child Welfare League of America.
But really improving education for the kids will take time, he says. "It's changing the culture, creating a new set of expectations that have higher expectations of achievement for ourselves and our kids, and saying we won't accept anything less. We're making what I call incremental gains."
Most experts agree that, while things like training and better communication help, what's most needed is a basic shift in philosophy. "The public child-welfare agency has to treat the education of school-age children in their care the way any parent treats education of their child," says Professor Courtney. "And that isn't the case right now."
In addition, he and others emphasize, it's not just the child-welfare agencies that need to make the effort. Courtney has heard principals complain about having to deal with the foster kids in their schools. "The education system needs to embrace these children," he says. "Once you get that attitudinal change, then these systems start to work together."
Despite all the hurdles, of course, some kids do succeed. Real, a tall, articulate senior at South Shore, with a big smile and infectious enthusiasm, is justifiably proud of his accomplishments. When he entered the child-welfare system three years ago, his parents had sunk into drug abuse and he had missed a year of school. "At first, it was hard to catch on," he says, "but I grasped it really quickly."
Today, Real is sixth in his class, maintains a 3.8 GPA, and has been accepted at six colleges; he's applying for a scholarship available to state wards. He went to Mexico on a class trip last year and is going to Spain in a few weeks. Eventually, he hopes to become a biology teacher or a physical therapist.
"It was a big change from being in a family with my mom and my dad, and it took me a little while to adjust," he says matter of factly. Placement with a cousin helped, he says. His four younger siblings live nearby.
Daphane, who hopes to graduate with Real this spring, hasn't had the same academic success, but she overflows with optimism. Like Real, she was placed with relatives - first her grandparents, and now with a sister - when she went into foster care nine years ago.
Her grades aren't good - last year she failed almost every class - but she hopes to attend college and eventually become an actress.
Her greatest recent accomplishment: being voted prettiest smile in the senior class.
But, charming as the smile is, she knows it won't get her to college unless she buckles down. Ms. Patrick, the STRIVE worker, has been reminding her to complete her applications and to take the ACTs.
The foster care experience, says Patrick, "plays out differently in every kid. Some kids say, 'My mom's not there for me, so no one's going to be there for me,' and they act out. Other kids hold it all in and try to excel."
Jose is one of those who acts out. The reason for his most recent suspension: He hit a teacher (or, as he puts it, "A teacher touched me and I touched him back.") The act may ultimately get him expelled.
His caseworker and the STRIVE workers are doing what they can - getting him into a leadership program, encouraging his poetry - but Jose, like many foster kids, is balancing on the edge, and they often remind him how much education matters to his future. Jose, his caseworker says often, has been through more than any kid should have to experience, "but he's really a good kid."
When I was in the system for the first year
That was the time of my tears
The time I wasn't used to waking up without my mother
The time I was waking up with the mothers of others
I knew what was going on
They were making my mother disappear with no wands
But it was wrong for them to let me grow up without her
They just didn't want me to get hurt
I learned that in my third year
And that was the time of my fears
When I was exposed to all the violence, gangs, drugs, and guns
Everything down the drain without the fun
Because of this I'm street-wise
I sometimes can tell by looking into someone's eyes
What happened in their lives
And how a person acts
You can tell if the person's whack
In the last foster home they put me in
They made me feel so down and dim
Like on my fifteenth birthday it was fake
I didn't even get a cake
I mean everybody forgot about J-O-S-E
Man, I hated being me
Now that I'm about to be 16 on June 18th
I look at everyone as a team
If DCFS didn't make their move with me
I probably would have ended up smoking weed
Or would have ended up in jail
With no kind of bail
So I'm glad DCFS do what they do
If I could I would like to say thank you
- Jose, a foster student