Complaints, concerns, but also causes for optimism

I’ve been delaying writing this post because for a stretch I was too outraged about certain things I’d been hearing in the foster care scene. Outrage is healthy if you can articulate it well and channel it productively, but anger is not the emotion I want to lead with. So, what’s changed? So much in the last two weeks, it seems! But before I get to the good news, let’s start with the issues.

COMPLAINTS

1. Housing is the number one problem facing my emerging leaders, the youngest of whom just turned 21. At the beginning of last semester, we went around the table introducing ourselves to each other. I was struck that with the exception of the two eldest, who are working professionals in child welfare, every single person at the table was facing some form of housing crisis. A couple had to get extensions for their time in care; a couple others didn’t secure formal extensions, but were able to remain in their foster homes out of the generosity of foster parents willing to house them for just a little longer; one was on the verge of losing a NYCHA apartment due to bureaucratic inefficiencies; and still another two were worried that their agencies weren’t moving quickly enough on their housing applications.  Continue reading

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On Your Own without a Net

Prof. Mark Courtney, director of the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a policy research center focused on children, families, and their communities, focuses his work on the adult outcomes of youth involved in foster care. In a 2005 report written for The MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood, Courtney notes a severe limitation of the Chafee Act of 1999, which guarantees $140 million annually to support services targeting youth in foster care through the age of 21. He estimates that around 20,000 youth age out of foster care a year (and, incidentally, about 1,000 of them come from New York City alone), but the funds must stretch out to cover significantly more. According to his calculus, this translates to about $1,400 per eligible youth.

The problem, he says, stems from the narrow focus on youth “aging out” of care, which misses the much larger population of older youth in care, which he defines as 16-18. Since the outcomes of this segment are particularly poorer than those of children who enter (and leave) care at younger ages. Courtney points out that it isn’t simply because these older teens are likely to be living in group homes or other institutions, but that even when they are discharged to parents or other family members, these relationships are often strained, and rarely provide them with the support they need.

You can read more in his chapter of On Your Own without a Net.

The blind spot in No Child Left Behind

Although I’ve experienced the impact of No Child Left Behind on my students’ approach to learning, I haven’t spent any time writing about it because the criticisms leveled against it are widely known even to the general public and I didn’t want to rehearse tired catch-phrases like “teaching to the test.” But a recent Op-Ed piece by Professor Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske (yes, that Fiske) caught my eye because it brought pressure to bear on one aspect of NCLB that often goes unspoken: its particular burden on impoverished students.

Supporters of act will undoubtedly raise the fact that NCLB was devised specifically to ensure that schools did not ignore their most disadvantaged students. But Ladd and Fiske address this irony and spell out the paradox for readers:

No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom.

They attribute this blind spot to our tremendous faith in education as the great equalizer in American society and also a well-intentioned concern that lowering standards for certain student populations would create a self-fulfilling prophecy (and smack of prejudice).

In this light, the recent reforms to NCLB relaxing standards do nothing to directly ameliorate poverty and its material effects on the educational performance of students (and they certainly don’t give us any more reason to respect public schools). I am most familiar with the challenges that foster youth face, but I imagine that many of their problems can be extended to poor children who do not get nutritious breakfasts before going to school or do not have access to private tutoring or test prep programs to keep up with their peers. Although the authors criticize the impulse to hold all students against the same yardstick regardless of economic background, they never explicitly propose that we should selectively lower our standards. Instead, they advocate for more social support and services for lower-income students, and also urge lawmakers to tackle the correlation between poverty and income head-on rather than putting all the pressure on schools, and especially teachers, to raise student performance by a herculean effort.

Casey Family Programs: Supporting Success

Supporting Success is the Casey Family Programs‘ framework for colleges, policymakers, and advocates concerned with improving higher education outcomes for students in foster care. In many ways it overlaps with the findings of the Education Advisory Board‘s report on campus support for students emerging from foster care, a research initiative that was also informed by CFP.

According to the second version of Supporting Success (Dec. 2010), there are more than 500,000 children and youth in foster care in the US on any given day. Each year, about 20,000 of the youth who are 16 or older age out of care. Compared to the national average of 24%, only about 7 to 13% of students from foster care enter college, and only about 2% obtain their bachelor’s degrees. (8) The statistics are especially dismal considering that at least 70% of youth in foster care express a desire to go to college. (7)

Many of the sweeping reforms in the education of youth in or emerging from care were put in place only in the last few years. Continue reading

Campus support for students emerging from foster care

A handful of universities including Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago approached the Education Advisory Board with these three questions regarding services provided to foster youth at different colleges and universities:

  • How are key support services for foster youth structured?
  • What resources are available to help foster youth transition to life at the university (e.g., dedicated advisor, support group, etc.)
  • How do other universities assist foster youth in facing specific challenges including applying for financial aid, buying textbooks and other peripherals, and finding a place to live during semester breaks?

The clients requested data from large public universities, but the board also contacted administrators at a community college in California, given the state’s system-wide commitment to foster youth in their community colleges, and also at Seattle University, which has the most comprehensive program nationwide for its attention to foster youth.

Here are their findings: Continue reading