Ties to adults keep foster kids on track at school

Half the time, when kids come by the Project STRIVE office at Chicago's South Shore High School, they don't need help with applications or a disciplinary problem - they just want to say hello.

Recognizing the need for stabile relationships is one of the things that sets the program apart from others like it. Funded in part by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (IDCFS) and run by three nonprofits, Project STRIVE is based in 17 Chicago elementary and high schools. The same workers are there every day, acting as advocate, counselor, college adviser, cheerleader, liaison, and friend to the foster kids.

"These are kids who've had relationships and attachments broken," says David Simpson, director of Project STRIVE. "If they feel comfortable and secure, then they can do the schoolwork."

For the most part, education is still an afterthought for state child-welfare agencies. But some are beginning to realize its importance, particularly as studies highlight just how ill-equipped many foster children are to succeed in life. And across the country, a few small programs such as STRIVE, Treehouse in Seattle, and Advocates for Children (AFC) in New York are trying innovative approaches to get foster kids the education they deserve.

While the programs are scattered and have some limitations - STRIVE, for instance, works only in schools with large numbers of foster children - they serve as models for change.

AFC, a group which secures educational access for at-risk kids, started focusing on foster children after a 2000 survey made clear how few of them were having their needs met. A vast majority of kids weren't receiving extra help, even though they were failing classes, and very few of their foster parents were aware of the services they were entitled to.

Since then, AFC has worked with several foster-care agencies to train staff about education, build screening mechanisms to get kids referred to the right programs, and work with individual families. Children under 3, for instance, now automatically get referred to early-intervention programs.

But the challenges are still daunting. Gisela Alvarez, director of AFC's foster-care project, remembers one situation in which a foster parent called when a school refused to enroll two brothers (they had no records). AFC quickly got the boys in school - one in sixth- grade, one in ninth - and sought out the missing paper trail.

During six years in foster care, the brothers had been in seven different homes, in and out of New York City. Both were supposed to be in special ed, but neither had had the extra services for at least two years. They were more than three years behind in all subjects.

"When we found the records, it turned out the 16-year-old had passed ninth grade, and was repeating it, unnecessarily, for the third time," says Ms. Alvarez. AFC got the boys services, and extra tutoring to compensate for the lost years.

In Chicago, a new focus on education is in part due to a change in the way the state child-welfare agency, IDCFS, views its charges. Since 1997, the state has had marked success in placing children in permanent homes, reducing its rolls from more than 50,000 to about 19,000 children.

But with that success came a recognition that the remaining children most likely will not find homes - they need to be raised, not just temporarily given a roof. Project STRIVE is just one example of the department's new commitment to "well-being" indicators like education.

Its social workers do a little of everything - college-visit trips, help with applications, referring children to the right after-school program, working to minimize school transfers - but say a big piece of their work is simply being there.

Jose, for instance - a child labeled by the school as having behavior problems but a real desire to succeed - stops by the STRIVE office almost every day just to say hi. It's that basic relationship that lays the groundwork when more serious work is needed. Another student calls regularly - and gets help on his college applications - even though he switched to another school earlier this year.

"You can say what you want about curriculum," says Mr. Simpson. "But relationships are what cement things."

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