Center for the Improvement of Student Learning - Supporting the Educational Success of Students in Foster Care
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Supporting the Educational Success of Students in Foster Care
Teachers can make a difference

Annie Blackledge, Program Supervisor for Building Bridges

Annie Blackledge, Program Supervisor for Building Bridges at OSPI and an alum of foster care. Watch a narrated PowerPoint presentation about how the foster care system works and what teachers can do to improve success for students in foster care. Discuss the presentation with your peers.

On any given day in Washington State, there are about 9,000 children in foster care. More than thirty-five percent of these children are cared for by relatives. Some will be reunited with their parent or guardian, some will be adopted and others stay in the system. In school, foster children face difficult challenges. They score fifteen to twenty percent lower on achievement tests and are fifty-seven percent less likely to complete high school. Foster children repeat a grade, change schools or enroll in special education twice as many times as their peers.* With the right tools and strategies, supportive teachers and other school staff can be key players in reversing these trends.

It is important not to make assumptions. You will not always know which of your students are in foster care, and not all foster kids have had the same experiences. When you learn that a student is in foster care, make every minute they are in your class count. While respecting the limits of confidentiality, get to know your student. Organize a meeting with his or her social worker, counselor and foster parents to build a strong working relationship with them and make sure that your student’s needs are being met. In the midst of the instability your student has experienced, it is important for all adults involved to be on the same page. Together, you can connect your student to the resources he or she needs to be mentally and emotionally engaged in school.

“A strong partnership between school staff, social workers and foster parents is essential in supporting educational success for children and youth in foster care,” said Lynne Welton, Education Program Manager with Children’s Administration at DSHS. “Teachers are key in reaching out to foster parents to include them in planning meetings and keeping them in the loop about their child’s successes and challenges in school. Teachers can also be pivotal resources for social workers in providing report cards, testing results and other important school information. Youth in foster care often report that their teachers were the critical stabilizing influence for them during difficult times or placement changes.”

In the best of situations, school staff and social workers make an effort to place children going into foster care with adults with whom they have already built a strong relationship. Ideally, the foster home will be in the student’s current school district so it will not be necessary to change schools.

"We try really hard to keep children and youth in their original schools when they are placed away from their home,” said Lynne. “Unfortunately, sometimes there are no foster homes available in the area around their school. One of the ways that school staff can help with this problem is to hold foster parent recruitment activities at their school. There are foster parent recruitment staff who can help schools with recruitment. Potential recruitment activities may include simple things like including a flyer with information about becoming a foster parent in each child’s take home packet or more involved activities such as PTA events. Including foster parent recruitment as a topic for all school meetings including bus drivers and lunch ladies may generate additional ideas about potential homes for kids. The school nurse, school counselor, McKinney-Vento homeless liaison for the school and the Readiness to Learn staff are all helpful resources in developing a plan for foster parent recruitment. If we had a few ‘extra’ foster homes within each school boundary, children and youth would have a better chance of staying in their home schools.”

When this is not possible, youth in foster care may move from one school to another more often than most students do. Teachers can ease these transitions by providing the new teacher with as much information as possible on the student’s grade level and performance. New teachers should be proactive in seeking this information from past teachers.

Foster Care Alumni of America

Foster Care Alumni of America is a nonprofit association that allows people who have lived in foster care to share their stories and experiences. The post card project educates us about the culture of foster care.

Increase students’ confidence by building on their strengths. Students in foster care particularly need to feel a sense of competence and control over their own lives.

“Another way teachers can support children and youth in foster care is by becoming sensitized to their experiences,” said Lynne. “Read the resources listed in this article which can help teachers increase their awareness and sensitivity around foster care. For example, youth in foster care often report that assignments like ‘family trees’, ‘autobiographies’ and other projects like these can be triggering for them. ‘Mother’s Day’ and ‘Father’s Day’ activities can be very upsetting for children and youth who may not have regular contact with their biological parent.”

Annie advises teachers to focus on the future; no one can change the past. “There is no reason not to go to college. There is a lot of scholarship money for kids in foster care,” said Annie, who in her previous job at Children’s Administration collaborated with the Foster Care to College Partnership to create www.independence.wa.gov. The website has the information that youth need to successfully transition from foster care to independence and college. Annie urges teachers and counselors to learn about these opportunities and asks them to “help your students in foster care plan for college, not just dream about it.”

Tips in this article and in the narrated PowerPoint presentation for working with students in foster care were taken from Casey Family Programs' Endless Dream curriculum as well as conversations with Annie Blackledge (Building Bridges, OSPI), Lynne Welton (Children’s Administration, DSHS) and Sally Brownfield (CISL).

* Data found in Education Advocacy Guide for Caregivers, September 2007.

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