For a child in foster care, whose lives are often filled with uncertainty, loss, and deprivation, school is a critical environment for safety, structure, and opportunity. Yet children in foster care face numerous unique barriers to education, such as living instability when children are initially removed from home and during their time in care. On average, a child in foster care experiences 2.8 living placements, which too often lead to school changes. When children change schools, they lose academic progress and leave behind peers and adults they’ve developed relationships with. Thus, school changes can worsen the instability children in foster care already feel in their home life, but now in their school environment as well.
Data shows that students in foster care have the lowest graduation rates, highest mobility rates, and highest drop-out rates, even compared to other at-risk students. But, small changes in how we work with children in foster care can make a significant difference. In addition to the child welfare system, the education system — school boards, administrators, teachers, other school staff, and PTA members – has an important role in supporting the school stability and success of children in foster care. Below are some examples on how schools and PTA’s can provide support:
- Learn more about the educational needs of children in foster care. Working with your local school’s administration, your PTA can prepare and offer in-service training and resources to school staff about the child welfare system. To see short videos on this topic, see Endless Dreams, Becoming Visible, and It Get’s Awesome. For an example of training for educators, see Meeting the Educational Needs of Students in the Child Welfare System.
- Identify students in foster care. Local PTA units can encourage their schools to connect with local child welfare agencies and ask them to contact the school when a child is in foster care. Or, ask your school to use enrollment forms to determine child welfare involvement. Then, ensure that the school environment is “trauma informed” and prepared to support children with a history of abuse and neglect.
- Help children in foster care stay in the same school, even when living placements change. Work with the child welfare system to recruit more foster placements in your district. School PTAs can alert the teacher, staff, and parent community of the need for foster homes. Also, work with the child welfare agency to think of strategies to provide transportation for children to stay in the same school, even if they move to a new area.
- Help children in foster care with immediate enrollment in the new school when changes occur. Often, children in foster care experience delays in enrollment because of missing records or other documents. Streamline the process by allowing for immediate enrollment, and work on expediting required records. PTAs can provide supports to caretakers (i.e. relatives, foster parents) new to the school community to ensure a smooth transition for the child.
To learn more about how you can support the educational needs of children in the foster care system:
Kristin Kelly is a Senior Staff Attorney at the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. She is a staff member of the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, a national technical assistance and training resource and clearinghouse on the educational needs of children in foster care.