Policymakers from Congress to the state and local levels are sharpening their focus on the educational needs of children in foster care, a population that can exceed 700,000 nationally in the course of a year and which has doubled in the past two decades.
In many cases, their strategies coincide with recommendations outlined in a recent report on California’s massive foster-care system: access to preschool for foster children, specialized training for teachers, and making sure child-welfare agencies have educational liaisons.
“A focus on school readiness and school success may not heal all the damage already inflicted early in the lives of foster children, but it can give these children—and many of their peers—the fighting chance they need and deserve to thrive as adults,” says the report, released last month by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Mental Health Advocacy Services Inc., a Los Angeles-based public-interest law firm.
Among the signs of renewed attention to the educational needs of foster children:
• The reauthorization of the federal Head Start preschool program last fall lists children in foster care as one of the groups designated to receive priority for enrollment.
• Efforts are under way in Congress to include foster children in the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which is meant to provide school stability, transportation, and other educational services for homeless children.
• A six-state project launched by the National Governors Association last month includes improved school performance for foster children as one of its goals in an effort to cut the number of children in foster care by 50 percent in the next 12 years.
Such efforts are intended to help compensate for a range of challenges facing children in foster-care placement.
Foster-care providers tend to have fewer resources to support learning than do traditional families, according to William O’Hare, the coordinator of Kids Count, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropy.
For example, U.S. Census Bureau data show that the average income in foster households is lower than that of traditional homes with children—$56,364, compared with $74,301. In addition, Mr. O’Hare said, foster parents are more likely than traditional parents to be unemployed and have less than a high school education.
At a recent presentation to a Population Association of America conference in New Orleans, where he outlined those statistics, Mr. O’Hare said such factors can have serious drawbacks for the educational success of children in foster care.
Foster families “have fewer human resources and fewer financial resources,” he said in a subsequent interview. “It’s got to have a negative impact.”
The NGA pilot program begun last month seeks to address some of those issues, even as it aims to bring down the numbers of children in out-of-home placements.
The association’s Center for Best Practices has chosen six states— Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—to participate in a “policy academy” to work on the project.
One of the states’ tasks will be to improve collaboration among various agencies that all might have an interest in helping the same child. A lack of cooperation between social workers and educators is often blamed for gaps in children’s learning.
For more stories on this topic see Curriculum and Learning.
And while the primary aim is to bring down the numbers of children in foster care, the initiative also will seek to improve school performance, said Joan Smith, the senior director of systems improvement at Casey Family Programs, a partner in the project.
In addition, at least two of the states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have included education officials as team members.
In California, which is home to more than 10 percent of the nation’s children in foster care, the recent report by education and mental-health experts outlines a variety of strategies that policymakers and practitioners can use to reverse the many learning deficits among such children.
The report is the culmination of work conducted in 2005 and 2007 by the California Education Collaborative for Children in Foster Care, a committee that included child-welfare and education experts, former foster children, lawyers, and researchers. The Stuart Foundation, based in San Francisco, has supported the project with a $326,000 grant.
It notes that children in foster care are more likely to repeat grades, to be in special education, and to leave school without a high school diploma.
The authors place a special emphasis on making sure children under age 5—who make up 32 percent of the more than 74,000 foster children in the state—receive preschool and early-intervention services.
Social workers, foster parents, and other caregivers, the authors recommend, should receive training on early brain development and the developmental problems that can occur for foster children. Preschool slots should also be increased in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foster families, such as low-income and minority neighborhoods, the report says.
“This is a population,” said Jane Henderson, a consultant who worked on the California report, “that already qualifies for a lot of special services.”
California and Delaware also have taken steps to allow children to stay in the schools they were attending before being placed in foster care, an effort to address the problem of high mobility that can disrupt children’s education.
“That is a discussion that is happening in a lot of jurisdictions,” added Robin Nixon, the executive director of the Washington-based National Foster Care Coalition, an advocacy organization.
But Ms. Henderson said that a 2003 California law never specified who would cover the cost of transportation if children are placed in foster homes outside their schools’ attendance zones.
Ms. Henderson noted that while California’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit won’t allow for major new initiatives in this area, existing legislation could be more fully implemented.
California’s 2003 law also allows for foster children to enroll in schools even if they lack the proper records and for students to receive partial credit for a course. But advocates say there is sometimes still resistance among school staff regarding such matters, and that more awareness is needed.
“There is so little sunshine on the issue, and the kids are kind of invisible, and they get bounced around,” Ms. Henderson said.
Ms. Nixon and other advocates say they have seen an increase in efforts elsewhere to elevate foster children’s educational needs.
Eight years ago, Advocates for Children of New York—a nonprofit organization that focuses on securing educational services for children at risk of school failure—was trying to get New York City child-welfare agencies to share data on children in foster care.
The intention was to better understand the educational needs of those students, many of whom qualify for special education services.
The advocacy group ran a pilot project from 2002 to 2004 in the now-closed Louise Wise Services, a child-welfare agency, in which members of the group’s staff, including education lawyers, were placed inside the agency to focus on children’s academic needs.
Advocates for Children made a big push to make sure the child welfare agencies in the city were enrolling children in tutoring services under the No Child Left Behind Act, said Gisela Alvarez, a senior project officer at the organization.
The city has even created an education unit within its Administration for Children’s Services, which contracts with agencies to handle child placements.
“Just the presence of having someone focused on education really changed the culture of the agency,” said Ms. Alvarez.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Schooling Issue a Complication for Foster Care