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The education foster kids deserve

2019-09-05

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Despite the rise of smart boards and the demise of Palmer script, I’m always surprised by how intensely familiar an elementary school feels to me, how deeply ingrained my memories are. As children, we spend more time in school than almost anywhere else. School is a second home, where students should feel stable and nurtured.

This is most important for the more than 5,000 school-age children in foster care in New York City. Teachers and administrators — especially if they see new faces in the classroom this year — can have a tremendous positive impact by paying close attention to the needs of their students who are, through no fault of their own, living apart from their families.

Children may be returning to their old schools accompanied by new caregivers; others are navigating a brand-new school while also adjusting to new caregivers, a new apartment or new support systems. Even young people with stable foster care placements have underlying trauma and family contexts that interfere with their academic progress.

At minimum, foster care is exhausting: court dates, visitation appointments, therapy. It brings uncertainty and a sense of not always knowing who to trust. Complicated relationships are a part of life for foster youth. Somehow, most are resilient, smart, and incredibly brave. We must help them identify their strengths and build on them to succeed.

Families involved in the child welfare system are stigmatized, and children frequently feel shame about their situation. One of the first steps a school can take to support students is to encourage discussions of foster homes and other non-traditional families in everyday classroom conversations. By normalizing the topic without identifying any particular student, children in care feel validated and seen, even if they choose not to disclose their family situation to their peers.

Of course, teachers are not solely responsible for the educational success of students in care. JCCA, the agency I lead, and other foster care agencies have greatly increased their academic supports in the past decade with tutors, mentors, caregiver training, and early literacy programs. As influential adults who see our kids five days a week, however, teachers are critical to a child’s sense of safety and well-being.

School administrators should make sure that teachers are notified of changes in a child’s status, either because a foster parent has provided a letter confirming their role or because the “blue card,” the ultra-important NYC public school record of a child’s home address and the names of their caregivers, has been updated. When teachers have a better sense of their students’ home environments, they can better adapt their approach in order to improve outcomes.

Even if a child lives with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, it does not necessarily mean they have a stable home life or even a permanent home. Nearly 40% of foster youth in New York are in kinship care — a type of foster care where children are placed with a relative or close family connection. Kinship foster caregivers may be familiar and loving, but they may not have recent experience with a school-aged child. They might not yet have completed the training necessary to fully understand and support their new charge’s emotional and behavioral needs. Placing young people in kinship homes can mitigate the trauma that family separation inherently brings to a child’s life, but it does not eradicate it.

I have spoken with countless foster care alumni who loved school and considered it an anchor, but still struggled to attend, much less graduate. For a young person in the child welfare system, disengagement from school is not an indication that they lack motivation, but a symptom of everything else going on in their life. To encourage school success, a teacher’s patience and compassion are just as important as classroom instruction.

Students need to know how much their teachers support them, and to understand that their teachers are on their side. Teachers should also know that foster care agencies are on their side. There are resources outside of school to help young people build important skills, coping behaviors and study habits.

This back-to-school season, we invite teachers, administrators and educators to recognize the oft-overlooked struggles of youth in foster care and pay close attention to signs of an unstable living situation. Staff are in a unique position to support these students and provide them with a sense of belonging and certainty that builds on the efforts of their biological and foster families. By nurturing an academic culture of awareness, openness and inclusivity, schools can provide a trusted, comfortable “home away from home” in which foster children can thrive.

Richter is CEO of JCCA and former commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services.