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Closing educational gap for kids in foster care

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Maggie* entered foster care when she was a toddler. By first grade she had attended four different schools. By third grade she still could not read, was a grade behind in math and she received frequent out-of-school suspensions for acting out her trauma.

Instead of finding her a stable home, Arizona’s child welfare system constantly moved Maggie between shelters and group homes — twisting her educational experience into another source of frustration, disappointment, and pain. Too many abused and abandoned children share Maggie’s experience.

Jessica Barnett

On every educational metric, Arizona’s foster children place near last compared to every other at-risk student group — including those experiencing homelessness, those in poverty, and those who speak English as a second language.

Collective and distinct adversities drive this educational achievement gap. Childhood abuse compounded by the complexity of foster care creates behavioral and learning struggles — traumas exacerbated by constantly changing schools. These students are four times more likely to transfer midyear — and 14% will attend at least three schools in a single school year. Seldom are they sent to high quality schools best suited to their needs.

Students report being disheartened and disincentivized. Even previously higher performing students veer off track, with less than 20% meeting Arizona’s testing standards. As a result, just 40% of Arizona’s youth in foster care graduate in four years.

Stability in education is crucial. Even one less school move can double a student’s chances of graduating and reduce the high risks of arrests, homelessness, and poverty that plague foster students. In fact, federal law already states children should only move schools if it is clearly beneficial to them.

So why do schools frequently fail to even identify students as being in foster care, let alone prioritize their unique needs? Without clarifying and reinforcing foster student-centric policies via state law, schools will continue to struggle to help these children succeed.

Arizona’s most vulnerable students have a right to attend the school and receive the services that will best help them thrive — from their first day of entering foster care, no matter where they live. Arizona lawmakers can equip educators to break the cycle of instability and propel these children to their full potential.

First, state law must require school placement decisions be dictated by the child’s best interests by imposing clear deadlines and responsibilities for determining the best school for the child, waiving enrollment and activity fees, awarding credits and recognizing completion of prior schoolwork, as well as providing reliable, free transportation and notifying students and caregivers of their rights.

Too often, Maggie’s needs took a backseat to adults’ convenience, including when the hassle of figuring out transportation kept her from a school with specialized services that would have addressed her trauma and learning needs.

Next, lawmakers can ensure that, instead of punishing students for trauma-induced outbursts, as Maggie was, students receive the right resources to graduate and thrive. Despite needing special education services twice as often as their peers, many foster students don’t receive proper education support to overcome trauma-induced learning challenges.

State policy should provide immediate screening of foster students for necessary support like special education, implement these supports quickly, and routinely monitor student progress. Students in foster care should also presumptively qualify for educational resources and programs that exist for other at-risk student populations and streamline access to those programs.

A quality, stable education helps counteract the trauma children experience when they are removed from their homes. Simple solutions can make school a haven where they experience safe relationships, gain confidence, and prepare for the future.

Luckily, Maggie finally found an adoptive family committed to meeting her educational needs. Though she still suffers the long-term effects of missed foundational learning, she is approaching junior high with hope. By implementing simple reforms, Arizona can ensure promising futures for more children like Maggie.

*Name and details changed to protect the child’s privacy.

Jessica Barnett is a foster care policy analyst at The Center for the Rights of Abused Children.

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