The Gifted Child in Foster Care: Lost in the Shuffle
Poverty, trauma, and high rates of mobility keep bright children in the fostercare system from finding their way into academically rigorous courses and programs
For George Garcia, academically challenging courses and participation in student government were more than just a path to college.
They also provided an escape.
"Because while my home life was shifting so much, I felt a sense of stability at school and something to concentrate on," said Garcia, who was in the foster-care system from age 10, when he and his four siblings were removed from home, to when he became legally emancipated at age 18. While he cycled through 10 home placements in four years of high school, Garcia stayed at the same Los Angeles school and said being surrounded with "academically ambitious" classmates and teachers in college-prep courses "challenged me to invest a lot of my time in something I could control."
Garcia ultimately was elected vice president of his class twice at Summit High School, graduated with honors in 2012, and became a foster-mentor with the Guardian Scholars program at the University of California, Riverside. Looking back, Garcia, now an administrative coordinator at U.C. Riverside's National Foster Youth Institute, said his time in foster care deepened his own sense of resilience and academic determination.
Yet Garcia's experience, while hopeful, is far from the norm for students with high potential in foster care, according to experts. Trauma, schooling instability, poverty: Any one of those challenges can make it harder for gifted children to be found and to show their strengths, and students in the foster-care system often have all of those disadvantages and then some.
"We get these kids over and over who are so eager to learn, but they have so many challenges against them, so they don't look like they are achieving because they are struggling with all the trauma going on in their lives," said Kathleen Casper, the gifted-education director at Solid Rock Community School near Tampa Bay, Fla., and an active foster parent for temporary placements.
The number of children in the foster-care system has been quietly ticking up after years of decline, from about 397,000 in 2012 to more than 437,000 in 2016, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. Experts attribute the rise to a wide variety of factors, from poverty and housing instability after the 2008 recession to the opioid epidemic. There are no national numbers on how many foster students participate in gifted education or advanced coursework in high school, but a recent California study found that only 2 percent of students in foster care in that state were identified as eligible for gifted and talented education services, compared with 6 percent of low-socioeconomic students generally and 9 percent of the state's total student population.
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires school districts to understand a lot more about both academically advanced students and those in foster care than they have in the past. Districts must now break out performance data, including academic achievement and graduation rates, for foster students, and they must show the percentage of those students performing at both "proficient" and "advanced" levels on state tests. Districts that better identify and support gifted students in the foster system could see better long-term achievement and school engagement for this group over time, experts say.
The traditional process for identifying academically gifted students, including teacher referrals coupled with standardized assessments, may miss a quarter to half of gifted students, particularly those from low-income or other disadvantaged backgrounds, estimates research from the National Association for Gifted Children.
Common school assessments such as the Cognitive Abilities Test focus on verbal reasoning and spoken language, which also can be delayed in children who have experienced trauma, said Michael Postma, the executive director of the group Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted. "The school would have to understand different characteristics of giftedness—not just the IQ piece—creativity, leadership, critical thinking," he said. "They might have missed schooling; you'll need to look beyond achievement to fluidity, speed of growth. You really have to look for contextual clues for these kids."
Another obstacle, said James Webb, a gifted-education researcher and author, is that "most school districts do not start [gifted] programs until 3rd grade, and by then, [a foster child's] idea of the world is pretty set, and they are less likely to be the teacher-pleaser kind of child who is more likely to be nominated by a teacher for the gifted program."
Last fall, for example, Casper, the gifted director at Solid Rock, temporarily took in a 6-year-old girl who had left her kindergarten after two months when she entered foster care. She was identified and referred for an evaluation based on her academic potential in her new school, but had not had the final paperwork signed when she was moved again, this time to live with a relative in another school district.
"So this child has now had to go to three different kindergartens. She has to fit into a new classroom, learn a new curriculum, get into the process of being identified, and then start all over again, with no guarantee that this relative will follow up on it, or even see the value of gifted education," Casper said. "Even if you advocate for this child in the period of time they are in your care, a lot of times the process takes so long that by the time the kid's moved, nothing has been done."
Jonathan Plucker, a professor of education and talent development at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth, found highly mobile gifted students can be more resilient than students on average would be to changes because they are more likely to be naturally curious and good problem-solvers. But if their academic environments vary significantly from one placement to another, "that sends you very mixed messages about your value and talents," Plucker said.
Garcia recalled he was not tapped for gifted programs in middle school—and in fact cared little about his schoolwork when so much was going on outside of school. Instead of being identified for advanced programs through the school, he said that in high school, his friends convinced him to seek out more advanced coursework.
In Washington state, Treehouse, an advocacy group focused on getting foster students on a college-bound track, helps those transitioning into high school align their foster placements with their academic goals. Education specialists like Merissa Humes meet with students weekly to help them set goals, apply to colleges and for scholarships, and plan for life after both high school and the foster-care system.
Collectively, Treehouse and everyone in the community who supports the organization weave together the middle-class safety net youth in foster care need.
Judges and caseworkers generally decide placements by looking for a safe, stable home for a student, but the details of the student's school situation may not be at the forefront, said Angela Griffin, the chief program officer for Treehouse.
"We validate that, but it's also important for them to have the academic support they need ... that they are able to complete courses, work in similar programs," Griffin said.
One high school senior, for example, was a straight-A student who was about to be moved to a school five districts away that did not have the Advanced Placement courses he was taking. Treehouse eventually helped arrange transportation for the student to remain at his current school, even though it meant a 90-minute bus ride to and from a relative's house each day. "The student was willing to do it, and we were there to provide social and emotional support," until the student graduated, she said.
The support has dramatically improved foster students' graduation rate in the state. The five-year graduation rate for foster students participating in Treehouse is 89 percent, 7 percent higher than the overall graduation rate statewide and 40 percentage points higher than the state graduation rate for foster students.
Sometimes, Griffin said, advocates also have to persuade schools to look differently at a student with mediocre grades or behavior problems. "That happens quite a bit, because the trauma and instability they experience ... can sometimes mask the academic ability they have," she said.
Today, for example, Jordon Marshelle Barrett has earned mostly A's in her junior and senior years at Kentridge High School in Kent, Wash. But her grades were in a tailspin in 10th grade at a prior school, when she left one foster placement and ended up being shuttled among seven shelters and group homes, losing months of class in the process. Finally, with help from a new foster family and from Humes, she transferred to the more academically rigorous Kentridge and retook her sophomore classes, but worried that the repeated grade would be a black mark on her college applications.
All kinds of students can end up in foster care, but research suggests academically gifted students often go unnoticed and unsupported in the system. Learn how one program in Washington state is helping districts find and serve some of their most vulnerable but promising students.
Humes helped Barrett get a meeting with her preferred college, the University of Washington, Tacoma, to explain her transcript and press her determination to study psychology and law, to eventually become a homicide detective.
"Even though [Humes] was sick, she was texting me before the meeting: Ok, remember to tell them this and this ..." Barrett said. "Marissa took the time to really learn me and connect with me. ... Going through the shelters, you feel like you have nobody; it's really lonely. ... Not only did Treehouse help me with material things … they helped me by giving me somebody I can talk to."
Response to Trauma
There has been very little study of gifted students in foster care, but researchers have looked at how intellectually advanced students respond to mobility, family instability, and trauma.
Jean Peterson, a Purdue University education professor emerita who for the past 25 years has tracked academic and emotional changes among gifted students who experienced trauma, found that intellectually advanced students who experienced abuse were at a higher risk of post-traumatic stress.
A former psychologist at the Children's Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, Webb agreed. Common traits of giftedness, such as questioning adults and showing heightened sensitivity, can turn negative in children who have unstable or abusive home lives, he said.
"You have a class discussion, and the teacher says, 'Tell me about your family.' The student thinks, 'Which family?' Being in a foster system implies by definition that there is some family disruption. You can expect quite a reaction to this—which may or may not be verbalized," Webb said.
Garcia, the foster child who is now a college mentor for foster students, agreed, noting that few of his teachers or peers knew about his home situation, even though he changed placements 10 times in four years. "I feel like there's a barrier in understanding," he said. "You might have to talk in school about a lot of things you might not have really worked through, and it can be kind of retriggering, retraumatizing."
Both Peterson and Garcia said being in foster care can also heighten academic stress and the perfectionism that gifted students often struggle with. Garcia recalled staying up late to study for a test the next day in U.S. history. "I passed out and woke up covered in hives from the stress," he said. "I think stress management is one of the biggest challenges—and self-care."
Better coordination among education systems, social services, and other child-welfare agencies could help, researchers and advocates say, but personal connections with even one or two adults in school who understand and encourage a student's academic potential can greatly improve his achievement and success long term.
"A lot of kids in the system don't have a sense of themselves as 'bright.' Their intelligence might be put to simply surviving—getting groceries, taking care of younger siblings," said Peterson, a co-author of the 2018 book Counseling Gifted Students. "Educators need to point out to them, 'You have not had the easiest life, but look at all you've done.' "
Vol. 37, Issue 23, Pages 14-17Published in Print: March 7, 2018, as Lost in the Shuffle: Gifted Foster Children