Study: Foster Children Often Trail Their Peers in School

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Foster children in the Chicago public schools tend to fall behind their peers early in their school careers and remain at risk for educational failure throughout their teenage years, a study released last week by the University of Chicago concludes.

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Read an abstract of the study, "Educational Experiences of Children in Out-of-Home Care," online from the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children.

Children placed in “out of home,” or foster, care are nearly twice as likely as other Chicago public school students to be old for their grade, an indicator that researchers believe increases the likelihood of dropping out. Almost half the 3rd to 8th graders studied scored in the bottom quartile on the state’s standardized reading test.

Those children were about a half-year behind comparable public school students who were not in state care, the study found. Moreover, the proportion of students in foster care who dropped out of school—15 percent—was more than double the averages for other students in the same age range.

For the study, researchers at the university’s Chapin Hall Center for Children compiled data on 4,467 public school students in out-of-home care during the 2002-03 academic year. Other analyses were performed specifically on the 3,679 Chicago public school students who started the school year in foster care in September 2003.

Transition Problems

Placement in state care is sometimes blamed for a child’s poor performance, but the problems start well before then, said Mark E. Courtney, one of the researchers and the director of Chapin Hall.

“When you look at the data, they were performing poorly on average before they even came into care,” said Mr. Courtney, who is also an associate professor at the university’s school of social-service administration.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services commissioned Chapin Hall, a policy research center, to conduct the study. This is the second of three studies to be released this year on the experiences of Illinois children in foster care.

The study shows that the Chicago system, which has 434,000 students, and child welfare workers need to be mindful of transition problems during the first year a child is in out-of-home placement, Mr. Courtney said. Often, a child is removed from a familiar school with little regard to educational concerns.

“There’s no question that mobility is a problem,” he said.

Children in foster care are too often shuttled into special education, Mr. Courtney asserted. The researchers’ interviews with social workers suggest that they see special education as just another service for children, as opposed to a resource that should be used judiciously, he said.

The study also recommends that schools and social workers work together to address the needs of abused and neglected children who are not in state care. Those students perform marginally better than students who are in foster care, but still have great difficulties in school.

“There’s reluctance to take that on,” Mr. Courtney said. “But there’s a need for us to think more comprehensively in how we support troubled families.”

The Illinois child-welfare agency has announced several changes in the wake of the report’s release, including better monitoring of children in out-of-home care and an agreement to keep children in their original schools when a child is placed in a shelter.

“Like a good parent, it’s our responsibility to be sure our youth have every chance to be successful in school,” said Bryan Samuels, the director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Vol. 24, Issue 15, Page 12

Published in Print: December 8, 2004, as Study: Foster Children Often Trail Their Peers in School
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The article should have said that a study by the University of Chicago showed that 15 percent of Chicago students in “out of home” care who dropped out of school did so before turning 16. By age 19, 64 percent had dropped out.

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