Foster care and education

While watching the State of the Union address on Tuesday I was reminded of how challenging it is to move beyond worthy aspirations and truly effect change. In the world of partisan gridlock I can’t help but wonder what if anything can be accomplished in such a dysfunctional environment. Perhaps the most difficult thing about such an impasse is the negative impact it has on the lives of the most vulnerable.

The fiscal constraints of the last several years have considerably weakened the capacity of public education systems. School districts like Los Angeles Unified School District and Pasadena Unified School District are struggling to meet the needs of their students, especially those with learning challenges. In particular this is true for children served in foster care.  Recently, a study about the education of school-aged children and youth in the foster care system was released by The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning. The study is a “first-ever education snapshot” of all K-12 students in foster care in California.

Some of the findings, although not surprising, were nevertheless sobering when you consider how essential education is for success. The study shows that students in foster care:

  • Were more likely than other students to change schools during the school year.
  • Were more likely to be enrolled in the lowest-performing schools.
  • Had the lowest participation rate in statewide testing.
  • Were older for their grade level than the other student groups.
  • Had the highest drop out rate and lowest graduation rate.
  • Only 37 percent of foster care students were proficient in math, the lowest of all other students, including those with disabilities or with limited English.
  • Nearly one in five students in foster care was classified with a disability and had a higher rate of emotional disturbance.

For the children and youth in the foster care system today, the aspirations of well-intended government officials offer little consolation. For them to wait for the political process to bring about change is unacceptable. Their needs are immediate. What is at risk is their future! For us at Hillsides, the dilemma is urgent because these are our children and we can not fail them.

Since discouragement is not an option we have marshaled our own resources to augment the inadequate public funds we receive for education and have engaged an ever generous community of supporters to help the children and youth we serve defy the odds.

In particular, we do this by enlisting the help of between 45-70 volunteers at any given time who serve as tutors and mentors to provide the indispensable one-on-one attention and instruction that has helped those we serve out-perform other students in the foster care system.

Rob Wherley, one of our teachers at the Hillsides Education Center, began a reading program in September for struggling readers at the school. The program is called Reading Rocks and currently utilizes six tutors to serve 25 students who are struggling readers.  These students read at a level that is far below that which is expected by the state of California.  All of the 22 students have shown steady improvement in reading skills.  Currently, 17 of these students are on track to make a full grade level jump in reading performance and five of these students are on track to make a two grade level jump by the end of the school year.  The goal of the Reading Rocks Program is to “make up for lost time” by providing the individualized intensive intervention necessary to get students back to grade level reading expectations.

We may struggle to get the political system to be effective, but with the help of innovative staff and the generous support of volunteers we are helping our students to achieve and create lasting change. For more information on how you can volunteer as a tutor or mentor, please contact Laura Kelso, director of community resources.<

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