Student Well-Being


By Linda Jacobson & Linda Jacobson — September 09, 1998 21 min read


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.

One of the biggest challenges facing child-welfare workers and educators is their underlying mistrust of one another.

The success of the foster-care system has always been calculated in terms that have little to do with how a child is faring in school. Words such as “permanency” and “reunification” are commonly used to describe a child’s home and family situation, but little, if anything, is said about academic performance or what children are likely to do after they “age out” of the system at 18.

But Treehouse and similar projects are trying to change that by collecting and monitoring school performance data on children in foster care and urging child-welfare agencies to do the same.

“One of the things that has been an ongoing frustration for me is that these case outcomes are not kid outcomes. We measure success by when the kid gets out of the system, not by what happens to the kid,” says Mei Lan Loi. Until July, Loi was a planner at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City, where she worked on a project in which a caseworker from the city’s children’s services administration was assigned as a liaison to a middle school in Brooklyn. The caseworker provides individual and group-counseling sessions to a handful of foster children and serves as a contact for teachers.

A private, nonprofit agency, the Vera Institute works as a consultant to local, national, and international government agencies on criminal and juvenile-justice issues. A middle school was chosen for the project in an effort to reduce delinquency among young adolescents.

Loi’s goal was to see “a body of caseworkers” throughout the city trained to focus on foster children when they are hitting their adolescent years and to increase education and other services to children in their early teens.

To give these programs a chance at success, Loi believes that paid professionals, rather than volunteers, need to work with the children.

“You need people with certain skills. This is not just about getting nice people who want to do some nice things for kids,” she says. “These kids need some extreme structure. You can say, ‘I will take you home and buy you pizza,’ and they still won’t come.”

Like Loi, the University of Illinois’ Altshuler also found the middle school years to be a critical time for young people in foster care. After working with students for two years--in focus groups and through a mentoring program--she particularly noticed their achievement starting to slack off during the last quarter of the school year.

To her, the slippage suggests “that they are very anxious about the summer, and they see school as a safe place.”


Most efforts to draw attention to and improve educational results for children in foster care are small, pilot-level programs unconnected to any national network or organization. But one large-scale project under way in New York City could permanently change the way the school system and the child-welfare agency operate there, as well as influence other districts and agencies around the country.

About 1 ½ years ago, Nicholas Scopetta, the commissioner of children’s services in New York City, and Rudolph F. Crew, the chancellor of the city’s school system, reached an agreement to share data in a way that would reveal just where the city’s 40,000 foster children go to school and how they are progressing.

In addition to making data on such information as repeat school absences available to children’s services, the “memorandum of understanding” included the appointment of school system and child-welfare liaisons who would work together on cases. The new relationship between agencies also includes joint staff-development courses.

“When you have two systems that are providing services for the same family, the same child, it’s incumbent upon the systems to collaborate,” says Pedro Cordero, the director of interagency affairs for children’s services.

Another collaborative project is taking place across Massachusetts. It began on a pilot basis in the middle of the 1996-97 school year and has now grown to reach roughly 500 children in 15 districts.

“The goal was really to try to get the different groups to communicate better--teachers, foster parents, and social services,” says Susan Stelk, the education coordinator for the state department of social services.

In addition to assigning a liaison to work with the schools and the caseworkers and offering training to the various parties involved, the project has provided direct services to children in foster care, such as tutoring, after-school activities, and psychological counseling.

Both private and public foster-care programs are also trying harder to find homes for children in familiar neighborhood surroundings-and near their schools.

While information was collected on all 551 of the children involved in the project, 41 of them were followed more closely by an outside evaluator, who found small improvements in school attendance and behavior over the course of last school year.

More telling were the numerous anecdotal accounts of better relationships between foster parents, school personnel, and caseworkers, Stelk says.

The plan for the coming year is to reduce funding slightly in some districts while expanding the services to districts that serve more children in foster and adoptive homes.

The Massachusetts project has been paid for with state money so far, and this year it received $470,000. But Stelk hopes the local communities will be able to pay for the activities in the future.

Both private and public foster-care programs are also trying harder to find homes for children in familiar neighborhood surroundings--and near their schools--even though they might be losing a parent.

A 1980 federal law called for such arrangements, but the reality has been that children are often placed outside their communities because of a shortage of foster families.

Children in foster care often miss big chunks of the school year because they are so mobile. And with the transfer of student records sometimes delayed in the process, administrators and teachers often don’t know how to serve incoming foster children.

After reviewing Treehouse’s data from last year, it became clear to Keating, the director of the agency’s tutoring program, just how damaging a disruption during the school year can be.

“What we’re finding is that every time a child moves, they go through a period of not being able to re-engage,” she says. “They are obsessed with ‘Where am I going to go?’”

Sometimes, she adds, they just shut down and quit talking.

A few schools have found creative ways to provide the transportation necessary to keep children from changing schools--yet again.

Gatzert Elementary School in Seattle, for example, receives extra money from the district to cover transportation costs for homeless children, and it is extending those services to children in foster care.

“If they move across town, it doesn’t mean they have to lose their school,” says Randy Riley, an intervention specialist at Gatzert.

Keating is pursuing a legislative package in Washington state that would include some funding for transportation so students in foster care wouldn’t have to change schools so often. She also wants the state to create a program specifically for foster children in middle school that would give them added support in preparing for high school. And she wants full college scholarships for those students when they graduate.

Both Texas and Florida already offer tuition waivers to foster children who want to attend college.


While most of the projects that seek to bring educators and social workers closer together are just getting off the ground, one program in California dates back to 1972. The Foster Youth Services Program provides tutoring and counseling to children in foster care in six school districts.

But Robert Ayasse, a social-services liaison for the Mount Diablo district, east of San Francisco, wrote in a 1995 article that one of the most valuable things the program does is track down school transcripts and other important documents, such as birth certificates and immunization records. Often, there are big gaps in these students’ education histories because of their transience. When they need to start accumulating credits for graduation, turning up the records becomes even more critical.

Foster Youth Services, which served about 3,100 children last school year and received $1.4 million from the state, is one of a few programs to receive state aid--and to receive it for so long.

But Ayasse believes attention to this issue will continue to grow, thanks in part to changes in states’ welfare systems under the 1996 federal welfare-reform law. “The percentage of foster kids who end up on public aid is astronomical,” he says.

Research shows that anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of former foster children wind up on welfare as adults. Moreover, adolescent girls in foster care are twice as likely as other girls in their age group to get pregnant, according to Kathy Barbell, the director of foster care for the Child Welfare League of America.

Showing foster parents how to better navigate their way through the school system and become advocates for their foster children is key to helping schools address these students needs.

Experts recommend that schools of education train new teachers on how the child-welfare system works and inform them about some of the common effects that foster care has on children. Teachers should also be more careful about asking students to do such assignments as making a family tree or bringing baby pictures from home, says Lynne Steyer Noble, a senior consultant for the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

“It’s not so much that school people want to be mean. It’s that they don’t know in a lot of cases what goes on with these kids,” says Noble, a foster parent for 20 years. She also conducts training workshops for new foster and adoptive parents, as well as caseworkers.

But Allan, the principal in Seattle, believes that teachers should be shielded from some information about their students so they can concentrate on teaching.

Showing foster parents how to better navigate their way through the school system and become advocates for their foster children is another key to helping schools address these students’ needs, Noble says.

Foster parents, however, are often handicapped by the fact that biological parents generally retain many decisionmaking rights in the education of their children, particularly when it comes to special education.

A not-uncommon scenario, according to caseworkers and foster parents, is that school officials might believe a child needs to be tested for special education, but the birth parents won’t give permission. They might be angry with the school in the first place for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect.

Such situations further complicate the relationship between schools and social workers and keep students from getting the instruction they need.

Other foster parents note what they describe as a prejudice against children in foster care and an automatic response from the schools to label such youngsters with a behavior disorder or learning disability.

“The first place the school wants to stick them is in special education,” says Pearl Graham, a foster parent from Austin, Texas, and a former teacher.

A 1992 study on the use of special education services by foster children in Illinois found that more than six times as many foster children were receiving special education as had been identified by the state’s children and family-services department. Researchers concluded that social workers didn’t know enough about the needs of the children they were responsible for.

Shirley Hedges, the president of the National Foster Parent Association, based in Crystal Lake, Ill., and a foster parent for 23 years, says she eventually home-schooled some of her charges because they were constantly being sent home from school for disruptive behavior. She also served on the local school board in Hopkins County, Ky., for eight years, and saw to it that foster parents were invited to serve on local school councils.


Fortunately for Daniel, the Seattle 11-year-old, his foster “grandmother,” 70-year-old Cornelia Bosley, is one of those advocates. She enrolled him in a Catholic school this fall because she was worried about how he would fare in a public middle school. She’s also in the process of adopting him.

“Daniel’s got some tough little ways, but he’s come a mighty long way since he’s been with me,” Bosley says, as Daniel steps out on the patio to play with a Nerf toy that Keating brought him.

Bosley also gives Treehouse much of the credit for Daniel’s improvement.

Daniel, whom Keating describes as a “little Denzel Washington,” had the chance to share his own thoughts recently at a citywide fund-raiser. He and hundreds of other foster children were given scholarships to attend summer camp, and the proceeds from the evening were going to the Treehouse camp program.

Going to camp, Keating says, has been Daniel’s first successful social experience--one of the first places he hasn’t been kicked out of.

“Campfire in the evening was a time for talking about the day, for saying positive things about each other and singing songs,” Daniel read to the audience from a speech that Buonato helped him write. “Every night, I went to bed feeling very tired and very, very happy.”

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