School & District Management Opinion

Invisibility Cloak Lifted From California Foster Youth

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — November 17, 2014 6 min read
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Haydée Cuza found strength even in adversity. “I was developing everything of who I am today in my hardest moments in foster care,” she has written. Here, she presents three generations of her own family. (Photo by Ray Bussolari courtesy of Foster Youth Museum.)

There’s an old saying, “if you’re not counted you don’t count.” And for generations foster children weren’t and didn’t. That’s changed in California, and these most vulnerable of youth are no longer invisible.

The state’s Local Control Funding Formula gives a foster youth’s school an operating budget bonus, and schools throughout the state are now consciously aware of who they are. And a pair of reports has captured the school trajectory foster youth, which makes them even more visible.

High Dropout Rates

The picture isn’t pretty. Among all high-risk students, those in foster care had the highest dropout rate and the lowest graduation rates. Some 79% of other high-risk students graduate compared with 58% of those in foster care.

In preparing the Invisible Achievement Gap, researchers, for the first time, were able to link individual student achievement data from schools with child welfare data to count the 43,130 foster care students among the state’s nearly 6-million elementary and secondary students in 2009-2010. Most of these were in just a few districts, researchers from The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestED reported.

Besides having achievement issues, foster care students are more likely to change schools, experience neglect and physical abuse, perform poorly, and be in the lowest performing schools. Their achievement gap grows as they get older; it is greatest in the upper grades and for students who experience three or more foster care placements.

We care about these kids because they are the most vulnerable among us, the ones for whom the bedrock institution of American life has failed to work. These kids are like any others, except they are different. All have suffered trauma. By the time they are teens they have the psyche, and sometimes the brain chemistry, of a combat veteran.

Good News—Substantial Challenge

Increased visibility is both good news and a substantial challenge. It’s good news because some magnificent youth—who you will meet shortly—get the policy attention they deserve and maybe a little more help.

But they have lessons to teach us about other children, too. While it is important to recognize foster youth as a category, it is also important to understand that the problems and issues that they face can be seen as a spectrum on which all children fall. The more that foster youth are treated as a separate category—with a segregated flow of funds—the more difficult it is to functionally integrate them into the student mainstream, and the more difficult it is for school districts to fashion approaches to supporting all families.

Last week the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation an the Stuart Foundation, which also funds ‘On California,’ brought advocates, practitioners, and more than 20 highly articulate foster youth, to talk about policy ideas and improving practice in what is called the Education Equals Partnership. Other states are beginning to notice what California has accomplished in youth policy. “You guys are a shining star,” Kristen Kelly of the American Bar Association’s Center for Children and the Law told one of the working groups.

We’ll get to talking policy later, but today we ought to enter into a state of profound empathy with these children and young adults. Before examining the inadequacies of “the system” we should simply reflect for a moment on the burdens they carry.

Outside the conference hall, California Youth Connection had brought its Lost Childhoods exhibition, a collection of stories and artifacts from current and former foster youths. Some artifacts were horrifying: the electric chord that was used to administer beatings, the pile of condoms that symbolized the sexual favors frequently demanded of girls, or sanitary napkins made of toilet paper because foster families wouldn’t provide store-bought products.

Some of the artifacts memorialized triumph of the human spirit: student’s journals, their high school and college diplomas, the business cards of former foster youth. (The photo above is part of the exhibit, which travels and can be sponsored by colleges, schools, and other organizations.)

Three Fostered Youth Tell Their Stories

Three of students told their stories:

Paige Moore Drew, a sophomore at Sacramento State University, has spent 14 of her 20 years in foster care. She transferred schools eight times in middle and high school, and at one time her foster parent didn’t enroll her in school at all for a month, preferring to have her work around the house. “I was a maid,” she said. “School was a safe place, where home was not.”

But by the time she was 17, Paige found a mentor, Sandra who “became a solid supportive figure in my life and a mother to me.” Sandra also showed her how to apply to colleges; she was accepted at eight of them and was offered a bundle of scholarships. Sandra was a rock in the storm.

Tommy Diaz, 23, attends Cerritos College and wants to combine his math and art skills to become an architect who can design and build sustainable buildings. He spent 13 years in a Department of Children and Family Services court system placement. He moved in and out of his mother’s home as she struggled with drugs, alcohol, and domestic violence. Over time, he was in the houses of eight different relatives. When he was 18, constant battles with his grandfather led Diaz to an independent living program, this with the help of an astute counselor.

When Sarah Pauter was three, her mother dropped her off at a babysitter and never came back. She spent 17 years in the foster care system. Her child welfare record is several hundred pages long. Her mother and father were each incarcerated during her childhood.

At 12, through the Big Sister program, she came to know Kristen, who she recalled was, “the first female role model in my life that had an education and a career. She made me strive to be a strong, independent woman while building my self-confidence and investing in my aspirations.”

At 16, she began the reunification process with her mother, who changed her mind after a week, sending Sarah back to foster care and the high school from which she had fled. In the face of this trauma, the high school provided no counseling and couldn’t manage to put her back in the same classes she had left.

Ultimately, a relationship with several teachers helped, and at 17 Pauter received a full scholarship to San Diego State University where she graduated with a degree in social work. She then headed to Northwestern University where she earned a master’s degree in public policy and administration. At 25, she’s studying for the dreaded LSAT law school admissions test.

Connecting kids to adults turns out to be hard. The Youth Ambassadors at the conference were dressed for success and well-spoken. But the kids in the system are not necessarily so easy to take. As Sade Daniels, a former foster youth and now advisor to the Bay Area Youth Centers, told the audience “there are kids who don’t want our help. I was one of them. I was labeled as deviant and a delinquent. I cussed out my counselor...a lot. I didn’t showcase (that I was college material); teachers had to dig that out of me.” The audience laughed and applauded wildly, in part because they had all met Sade in their work, and, for some, they had been her.

I tell these stories of trauma and triumph to illustrate a point. It wasn’t the school curriculum that turned the lives of these kids around; it was a memorable pivotal adult or a succession of them. As Pauter put it, “when kids can’t access a counselor, the best curriculum in the world won’t work.”

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.