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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as One-on-One


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Providing a safe haven has long been the mission of the foster-care system. Now, a small but growing number of jurisdictions are counting education among foster children's basic needs.


When Marie Buonato met Daniel three years ago, he was on his ninth foster home, he had been expelled from a private school, and he hadn't been enrolled in a new school for several weeks because his social worker didn't know where he would end up being placed.

Buonato began meeting with him in his new foster home once a week--a condominium here on Lake Washington, where he lives with the woman he now calls his grandmother.

"He was very, very angry," says Buonato, a Roman Catholic nun with a background in education and counseling. "In spite of all the bravado he puts on, he's very insecure."

Now 11, Daniel, an engaging and attractive boy who has been in foster care most of his life because his birth mother abandoned him, talks about what he's good at in school.

"I like reading, and I like Marie. She's helping me work on my division." he says. "The best thing is she's here."

Buonato is a tutor for Seattle's Treehouse agency, which serves schoolchildren in King County's child-welfare system. While Treehouse's tutoring program primarily serves elementary students, Buonato is committed to continuing her once-a-week sessions with Daniel as he enters middle school this fall.

"I can't change their lives or take away their pain," Buonato says about the children she helps. "But I can give them the skills to make a better life."

Most children in foster care don't have someone like Buonato--someone whose main purpose is to keep children in school and on grade level in spite of the trouble and instability around them.

With roughly half a million children in foster care--a 74 percent increase since 1986--it's obvious that a greater number of the nation's students are in the child-welfare system. The increase is strongly linked to parents' addiction to crack-cocaine.

Teachers, while sympathetic to the needs of abused and neglected children, often don't know who they are. And even if they did, they've probably never been trained to recognize and handle the behaviors and attitudes that many children in foster care exhibit, such as anger and an inability to concentrate. In addition, many such youngsters have learning disabilities, and some refuse to speak. One study found that foster children are more likely than others to be emotionally disturbed.

What's more, with caseloads of 30 or more children, social workers are so focused on removing children from abusive situations and meeting their basic needs that attending to such concerns as reading scores and homework completion is practically impossible.

But a growing number of efforts around the country are working to bring educators and social workers together and to emphasize that these children need an education along with food, clothing, and safe homes.

Improving the lot of foster children is a tough task. Making it tougher has been what many see as an underlying mistrust between educators and social workers. "The two systems don't understand each other, they don't respect each other, and they see no reason to work together," says Sandra Altshuler, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She's been running a research project and mentoring program for foster children at two middle schools in Champaign for the past two years.

Teachers complain that social workers hide behind policies that are intended to protect the privacy of children, while caseworkers contend that schools tend to hold up the transfer of student records when a child is sent to a new school. As a result, students are often caught in the middle.

But it's in the middle where people like Altshuler and Jap-Ji Keating, the director of Treehouse's tutoring program, feel comfortable. They are, in effect, creating a position thathasn't existed before.

"To know both systems, and to be able to use both systems--that takes skill," says Keating, who came to the Pacific Northwest four years ago to work on her doctorate in education at Seattle University.

Being in the schools allows the tutors to meet with the students on a daily basis and to become what many of these children have never had in their lives-a dependable adult.

The tutoring program is one of four programs at Treehouse, which was organized four years ago and is subsidized with private donations. But it's not the one that the local newspapers write about. Little Wishes, the project that gives foster children a chance to redeem their wishes, usually gets the attention.

"But education is the gift that keeps on giving," Keating says, laughing at her use of the clich‚.

Until last school year, her five tutors drove all over the city to meet with the children they were serving.

"We were spending a lot of money on gas, and the tutors were becoming exhausted," she says.

But now, they are each based at an elementary school with high numbers of children in out-of-home placements. A sixth one is expected to be added this fall at an elementary school in Bellevue, a town east of Seattle, on the other side of Lake Washington.

Being in the schools allows the tutors to meet with the students on a daily basis and to become what many of these children have never had in their lives--a dependable adult.

Lindy Orlin, one of the Treehouse tutors, sits at a standard-sized library table with 9-year-old Ashley (not her real name) at Emerson School, located south of the city in the Rainier Valley. The two flip through a tablet of Ashley's drawings, a collection of flowers, faces, and colorful patterns.

The school day is ending, but it's been a big one for Ashley. Her teacher has enlarged several pieces of her best artwork and plans to exhibit them at parent night later in the week.

But on this afternoon, Ashley is preoccupied with something else that's going on in her life--a move that's about to take place into a family interested in adopting her. She's worried, Orlin later explains, that she'll be gone before parent night because her current foster family is already packing up her clothes, including the dress she plans to wear to the event.

"The teachers don't know what's going on," Orlin says, "but they are very sympathetic" that the girl is going through emotional turmoil over some private matter.

The tutors do much more than their title implies. One role they play is to help the schools become more familiar with child-protective services. Teachers, who are alerted to the foster status of children, also gain more awareness of their needs because they meet with the tutors to set academic and behavioral goals for the boys and girls.

It took a while, however, for the tutors to get access to the information they felt they needed.

"One of the biggest things was finding out if the kids were passing," Keating says. "How could we find out if we were doing our jobs well if we didn't even know if the kid was passing or failing?"

Treehouse tutors have since forged strong relationships with many of the educators they work with. "They are more than trained tutors. They are providing one-on-one support," says Claudia Allan, the principal of Concord School in the southwest section of Seattle. "The students can pick up the academics that they've been shut out of because of a chaotic home life."

Of the 65 children served by Treehouse tutors last school year, 70 percent were found to be living in "turbulent to highly turbulent" family situations, Keating says, referring to a recently completed evaluation of the project.

Despite their circumstances, many of the children made remarkable progress. Only two pupils did not advance to the next grade level. More than half improved their math skills by one or more grade levels. The results were similar in reading and spelling.

More than two-thirds of the group met all or most of their individual behavioral goals, and most of the children achieved all or most of their reading and math goals.

"These are highly capable children," Keating says. "When you put that network of loving care around them, they can do it."

Most of the tutors have also found sneaky ways to help the children focus on their work.

The tutors find that their biggest challenge is helping the children concentrate. And they say it's common for these students to wander away from class or school activities when they don't want to do something.

That's why behavior goals, in addition to academic ones, are set. Sometimes, they are as simple as keeping an organized book bag or turning in homework assignments.

Most of the tutors have also found sneaky ways to help the children focus on their work. Some use candy or small gifts as an incentive--an indulgence that Keating admits she allows. She once gave a little girl 50 cents every time she would ride the school bus and not argue with the driver. The youngster earned $25, and Keating took her shopping.

Marie Buonato, who works out of Wing Luke Elementary School, also in the Rainier Valley, used to carry a stuffed bear for the children to talk to or to hug. One girl, who struggled so much with her writing assignments, gave the bear a hug every time she put a word on paper.

Orlin has incorporated art and poetry into her tutoring sessions, and often tells the students to "draw themselves without their bodies"--an activity that Ashley used to produce several pieces of artwork.

But since her recent school transfer, Keating reports, Ashley hasn't been drawing. And her new school is too far away for her to continue meeting with Orlin.

The odds against children in foster care achieving success in school are great. Studies dating back more than 30 years conclude that when children enter foster care, they are already behind academically, and they don't catch up.

And with a growing emphasis nationwide on higher academic standards and student and teacher accountability, educators and child-welfare experts fear that many students in these circumstances are bound to get left behind without extra help.

"The kids in child welfare are not going to pass those tests," contends Janis Avery, the managing director of Treehouse, referring to new statewide tests in Washington state.

A national study from 1991, conducted by Ronna Cook at Westat, a research company in Rockville, Md., found that out of 810 18-year-olds who had left the foster-care system within a single year, two-thirds had not completed high school.

Children in foster care are also less likely than children living with their parents to be in a college-bound track in high school, even though the grades and test scores of both groups are about the same, according to a 1997 analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's "High School and Beyond" survey. Wendy Whiting Blome, a consultant to the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America, also found in her analysis that children in foster care were more likely to report that they had been disciplined in school and that they had been in "serious trouble with the law" during their high school years.

Once out of high school, young adults from foster-care backgrounds were more likely to participate in job-training programs than those who had lived with their parents, but less likely than the comparison group to attend a formal postsecondary education program.

But the educational deficits of children in the child-welfare system can start long before formal schooling begins.

A study, released last year by researchers from Allegheny University of the Health Sciences in Philadelphia, showed higher rates of speech and language delays among infants and toddlers in foster care.

In fact, children younger than 4 represent the fastest-growing segment of the foster-care population. They end up in the system largely because their parents lose custody as a result of crack-cocaine use, which is once again on the rise, surveys show.

Judith Silver, an assistant professor of pediatrics and one of the Allegheny University researchers, says little information is available on whether young children in foster care are receiving early-intervention services.

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Pages 42-47

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