Advocates push schools to comply with new law on foster kids
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Growing up in the foster care system, Brian Morgantini attended a dozen different schools. He ultimately graduated, although his reading ability was on a ninth-grade level.
“I was always the new kid who had just lost another family and was trying to cope with that,” said Morgantini, who was taken away from his drug-addicted parents by the state of Pennsylvania when he was 4. “Trying to learn, even trying to make friends while you’re not sure if you’re moving again in six months or a year — that was just something I had a hard time with.”
Nationwide, only about half of all foster children graduate from high school by age 18, well below the U.S. rate of 83 percent. They miss about five weeks of school a year on average, and just 4 percent graduate from a four-year college by the age of 26, according to the advocacy group Children’s Rights.
To make it easier for foster children to complete their education, a new federal law calls for better collaboration between educational systems and child welfare agencies. The foster care provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act took effect in December and require states to ensure that foster students remain in their school of origin or, if that is not in their best interest, immediately enroll them in another school, cutting through the red tape of finding records and proof of residency.
Children’s Rights launched a campaign this month, dubbed #FosterMyEducation, to push compliance with the new federal requirements and encourage states to do more to help foster children succeed.
“School mobility leads to less time in school, absences,” said Sandy Santana, the executive director of Children’s Rights. “Foster children fall behind and school mobility is correlated very strongly with kids dropping out of school.”
The group is sharing the stories of some 30 former foster kids in public service announcements and social media posts to bring attention to the problem.
Morgantini, 22, of Seaside, Oregon, now works as an advocate for foster children. As a child, he said, moving from school to school made it difficult to keep up with his peers.
“I was having a lot of trauma in my life and a lot of teachers just attributed my behavior to being a bad kid,” he said. “Nobody taught them the skills to prepare them for a youth like me.”
Advocates, who are also pushing for more trauma training for teachers, say several states have been ahead of the curve.
New Jersey, for one, presumes that children should stay in their school of origin and shares the cost of transportation between the state’s education system and the child welfare agency, which work together. Minnesota has a system to reimburse foster parents for any costs associated with transporting children to school.
Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families has its own school district, which works with school systems around the state to monitor the education of children in its care and assist in things such as transportation, record transfers and registrations. The state also has a “virtual learning academy” that provides online tutoring, SAT preparation and make-up classes to foster children. The state will pay up to the cost of attending a four-year state university for foster children.
Ro Okane, 28, attended 10 different schools while in foster care in New York. He said it was impossible to keep up when one school would be “on page 15 of the book and the next would be on page 41.”
Okane eventually earned a GED diploma, while in prison for robbery. He is out now and working as a recording engineer. He said he met many others in prison who had been foster kids — something he said could have been prevented if public officials and educators had taken more interest in their future.
“There needs to be stability for these kids,” Okane said.