Young people in foster care are among the most educationally at risk of all student populations. A 2014 CHOP Policylab Report showed these children fall far below their peers academically, are more likely to be eligible for special education services, and experience higher rates of absenteeism and lower rates of grade promotion and credit accumulation. All of these factors mean a greater risk of dropping out. Philadelphia is making progress in addressing these issues, but, according to a 2014 Project UTurn report, more than half of youth in foster care, and 64 percent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system, still do not graduate from high school.
Philadelphia cannot ignore this problem. One in five high school students (and 17 percent of students districtwide) are involved with the child-welfare or juvenile-justice systems — including about 6,000 total youth in foster care at any one time in the city. They are disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities, and students that identify as LGBT or gender-expansive. We are fortunate to have many dedicated partners actively working on this issue, but we all must and can do more.
First, we need to ensure that students who change foster homes and other child-welfare living placements can continue attending the same school. According to the 2013 CHOP PolicyLab Children’s Stability and Well-being Study, youth in care attended an average 2.7 schools over two years, and 20 percent of youth attended four or more schools in that period. Children who change schools lose four to six months of educational progress with every move, which leads to significant remedial needs, higher rates of grade retention, and dropping out.
Federal law requires all school districts to ensure school stability or immediate enrollment for children in foster care. At a local level, we need to ensure that placement decisions are made promptly and are in the child’s best interests, and that transportation is provided both inside and outside city limits. We need to identify more foster home placements close to the schools children currently attend.
Second, we must address the fact that youth in care fall behind in school because their academic credits often do not transfer or do not count toward graduation. Youth who experience frequent school changes often are unable to graduate because they don’t receive full course credits for prior work. They may be ineligible for a district diploma because the school they “landed in last” in 12th grade has a requirement they missed, like a 10th-grade parenting class.
Pennsylvania should follow the lead of other states like Maine, South Carolina, and California by passing state legislation to ensure the prompt transfer of credits from all schools, the availability of credit waivers for local requirements, individual graduation planning, and access to a statewide diploma. This measure should be applicable to all highly mobile students who experience educational disruptions — including those in foster care and the juvenile justice system, or those who experience homelessness.
Third, we need to eliminate the black hole that youth in foster care fall into when they are placed in residential settings, like residential treatment facilities, where they often receive a far inferior education at an on-grounds school. Pennsylvania law already allows children in residential placements to attend the local public school where the placement is located. However, this rarely happens, as few students are aware of this right.
Instead, most students living in group settings attend on-grounds private academic schools licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. These schools vary widely but most do not have the same curriculum requirements as public schools, do not require certified teachers, and are rarely monitored by the state or local school district. Youth in these schools report that they complete worksheets far below grade level, or only have access to cyber-based learning, or are subjected to restraints, assaults, or an isolation room by staff. Upon returning to their community schools, these children often find themselves on a trajectory to dropping out because of the significant disruption in their education from which they never recover.
Pennsylvania must pass legislation that reduces the number of children sent to residential placements and helps children to remain in their communities — including ensuring that children who are truant are not court-ordered to residential placements as a method of addressing their truancy. This only exacerbates future absenteeism upon their return to public school. We must increase protections to ensure the right to attend a local public school is meaningful. And the state should require that all publicly placed students be educated in schools that meet the same rigorous standards as traditional public schools and that are subject to thorough and frequent monitoring to ensure compliance with those standards.
In addition, neighborhood schools must provide targeted supports for these children, including mentoring programs, trauma-informed approaches to learning, and programs like schoolwide Positive Behavior Supports and Interventions in our schools. And we must always listen to youth in care and empower them to make decisions about their own futures.
Without these changes, we will continue to fail children in foster care, and they will continue to pay a heartbreaking price: the loss of a meaningful education and high school diploma, which unfairly stacks the cards against them and sets them on a course of unemployment, underemployment, instability, and high risk of homelessness and imprisonment. We can and should do more for these children in our care.
Maura McInerney is legal director at Education Law Center. @EdLawCenterPa
Kate Burdick is a staff attorney at Juvenile Law Center. @JuvLaw1975
The authors were editorial contributors to the Winter 2017 edition of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook on foster care and education.