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FEATURE

Fostering Allies

Students in foster care face constant transition. Educators can provide support and stability.
Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso

Akeema Lottman was about to enroll in her fourth high school in four years. It was supposed to be her senior year, but she had moved—many times. In addition, an illness had caused her to rack up absences, and she hadn’t received education services at home. The principal wanted Akeema to repeat her junior year.

“I began to cry right then and there as I pleaded for her not to do that,” Akeema wrote in “Too Many Schools: Moving every year makes it hard to graduate,” her essay published by Youth Communication, an organization that shares stories by and about youth in foster care. Even as her heart sank at the thought of repeating a grade in school, Akeema had to face being the new kid—again. “I felt mad lonely and lost as my peers stared at me, wondering who I was,” she wrote.

Akeema’s experience is not unique. In 2011, about 401,000 children were in foster care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By the time they reach their senior year in high school, children in care may have attended as many as 11 schools, says Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of Foster Care to Success, a national program that works to fund and support kids in foster care through college. Studies in multiple states report that as many as half of kids in care have repeated at least one grade, and the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education found that “only 20 percent of foster youth who graduate from high school attend college, compared to 60 percent of high school graduates in the general population.”

For students in foster care, these repeated moves also mean new rules and new faces. From losing touch with a trusted friend to being expected to eat unfamiliar food, they have little to no control over even the most basic aspects of their day-to-day routines. Instability itself may be the only constant in their lives.

Complicating things further is the reality that children in foster care are often living with the scars of past trauma. Some have experienced the death of a parent. Others have lived through a loved one’s substance abuse. Some children have been neglected or abused. These experiences can cause students to have difficulty forming lasting bonds with peers and adults or to display other social and emotional delays.

With so many children in foster care, the odds are that every public school educator will teach a student who is in care. The question is this: How can educators be supportive, stabilizing forces in the lives of these children?

Jennifer Gomeztrejo, a consultant with the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Division of Student Support Services, says the first step is to create a space where students feel comfortable approaching you. To this end, Mike Jones, who was at the time in charge of discipline at Laguna Creek High School—also in California—teamed with a district foster care liaison to open a communication channel with his students in foster care. They organized a group lunch to get input from students in care about how to make the school more inclusive.

At the first lunch, students said they needed additional support and felt excluded from school events, so the school staff decided to give students in care free admission vouchers to extracurricular events like basketball games. One lunch turned into many, and ultimately the students asked Jones to create a class. He designed a weekly advisory class and invited students who were in foster care to attend.

With so many children in foster care, the odds are that every public school educator will teach a student who is in care. The question is this: How can educators be supportive, stabilizing forces in the lives of these children?

Jones believes that having one person at each school who is a liaison for foster care youth is essential. It doesn’t have to be a formal position; any teacher who is a regular presence can provide stability.

“In most cases foster care kids are invisible,” says Jones, who now works as a foster care liaison in three high schools. “A teacher may only see an angry child who is not prepared or has a bad attitude and have no idea what that child experiences on a daily basis.”

Jones works with a ceramics teacher who, on her free period, voluntarily attends his advisory period. The students get to know her, and she becomes another person at their school they can turn to without fear of being judged, Jones says. Building trusting relationships like this one can also help students heal from the trauma of being separated from their birth families.

Many children in foster care are coping with the effects of trauma. Turn to “When Bad Things Happen” in this issue to learn how to provide psychological first aid.

Jones says one of his students described his life experience as a “repetition of betrayal.” Countering that betrayal requires a consistent presence from a caring adult. That means paying attention to what’s going on with students. Perhaps there is a court hearing, or maybe an adoption plan fell through. “The kid is going to be angry and upset,” says Jones. “Sometimes we need to have some leeway on a minute-to-minute basis.”

This year, Jones piloted a partnership with students in foster care at his high school and a nearby elementary school. Each week, the older students read to first- through third-graders. For many of his students, it’s the time they feel most successful, says Jones. It also establishes a new stability and an arena where the student has some control.

“They realize they are not alone and that they are worth something and feel respected,” says Jones, who also started a nonprofit, Courageous Connection, to offer training to educators working with foster care youth.

Jones’ efforts have made an impact. He tracked discipline referrals, attendance and grades over a five-year period as he developed the Courageous Connection program. The students involved in his programs were more engaged in their schoolwork and were expelled less often, says Jones.

By acknowledging and supporting students in care as complete and complex individuals, educators can mitigate the impact of trauma and empower students to find ways to take back a measure of control. It’s about seeing them as complete people, says Foster Care to Success’ McCaffrey. “Being in foster care is [only] one aspect of the child, not the whole.” There is no single solution to all the challenges faced by kids in foster care, but a stable, nurturing school environment is a good first step.  

Looking for ways to support your students in care?

  • Establish a buddy system, so new students have a peer to answer questions and show them around school.
     
  • Give new students a copy of the class syllabus, and schedule a time to review topics not previously covered at other schools.
     
  • Establish a good relationship with the counselor, and exchange information and resources often.
     
  • Survey your community for resources that may be helpful for students in care.
     
  • Give new students a list of items required for your class.
     
  • Stock supplies—such as soap, deodorant, notebooks and pencils—so that students are prepared for the day.
     
  • Have clothes on hand for proms and dances.
     
  • Offer a way for students to attend extracurricular events at no cost that does not single students out in any visible way.

Get tips for helping foster care students transition from high school to college or career opportunities. 

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