For many children, back-to-school season is a time of new opportunities: schedules to figure out, new teachers to get to know, friends to be made. Last week a neighbor of mine proudly showed off a photograph of our neighborhood children waiting with lots of smiles for the bus to pick them up.
There's a group of young people who might experience the start of school with more mixed emotions. Their route to educational success is more challenging. They are foster youth. Children who, through no fault of their own, cannot live safely at home. And who all too often, do not have the consistent, caring adult presence that can see them through a transition like the start of school.
The educational outcomes for foster youth read like a list of all the things we don't want for our children. Lower grades, more behavior problems, higher rates of suspension from school, lower high school graduation rates, and very low postsecondary school completion rates.
But if you think it's the kids fault, think again. These kids aren't dumb. Most are extraordinarily focused on succeeding despite what they have been through. As one young person stated in a National CASA focus group: "My parents failed, and my parents' parents failed. But I am not giving up."
And succeed many of them do. Some of our most successful business leaders, for example, spent time in foster care. Leaders like Bob Danzig, who spent 14 years in foster care, is the former chief executive officer of the Hearst Newspaper Group. He now writes books to help foster children succeed.
Let's also rethink those school behavior issues.These kids typically come into foster care due to abuse and neglect at home. Then they may move from home to home, often changing schools. Each change of school costs that kid several months of educational progress. With each move, students on average lose four to six months of academic growth(2); 75 percent of foster children are behind at least one grade level. Those lower grades aren't the kids' fault. Although there are new laws and guidelines meant to help them avoid changing schools, reality has yet to catch up.
I remember schoolmates like this showing up in the middle of the school year. No one knew who they were. They had no friends among us, and all too often, that's how it remained. Until they were moved a few months later to a new temporary home, and departed our lives forever.
This kind of instability at home, lack of permanency in foster care, and inconsistent schooling are a perfect recipe for behavior problems. Yet the destructive formula is compounded when schools overuse suspensions, a disciplinary step that does not appear to improve educational outcomes. See: "Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School," Center for Civil Rights Remedies, UCLA, August 7, 2012."
We can do better, and we need to. This country simply cannot afford not to give foster youth a good education. Research released last month shows that a larger percentage of the jobs available now require a higher level of education(4).
The difference in lifetime earnings for a college graduate compared to someone with only a high school diploma has been estimated at between $800,000 and $1 million dollars.
In the end, we will only help foster youth achieve educational success when we recognize they need an appropriate, consistent, caring adult in their lives. Someone willing to be their advocate -- to be there for them and solely for their best interests. That adult can be a teacher, foster parent, caring family member, or a community member. That adult can be you. Here's how:
If you are a teacher: learn about the special needs of foster youth. Treating these young people with understanding will go a long way in helping them to manage their behavior and you to manage your classroom. See the Foster Care Month publication: "What Teachers and Educators Can Do to Help Youth in Foster Care."
If you are a foster parent: get to know your foster child's teachers, and help them understand the child's unique needs and circumstances.
If you are a related to a foster youth: learn how you can help bring stability to a foster child. You can provide a temporary home as foster parent or a more permanent home as the child's legal guardian; or you can simply be the caring aunt, uncle or grandparent. See the Child Welfare Information Gateway's listing of child welfare agencies by state.
If you are a community member who wants to help or an advocate looking for more resources: go to casaforchildren.org.
(2) Dr. Joy Rogers, Loyola University Department of Education, Education Report of Rule 706 Expert Panel presented in B.H. v. Johnson, 715 F. Supp. 1387 (N.D. Ill. 1989), 1991.
(4) Jonathan Rothwell, "Education, Job Openings and Unemployment in Metropolitan America," Brookings Institution, August, 2012.