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CINCINNATI — Weekday mornings this school year, Bonnie Barnes often awoke before 7 a.m. in her single bed, showered, and ate breakfast on the small dining table under a print that read, “Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful.” About an hour later, she would leave her apartment and walk up the hill to await the bus. By 9, she had passed through the doors of Riverview East Academy, a pre-K-12 school not far from the Ohio River that separates this Midwestern state from Kentucky.
It was a spell of routine in a life marked by its absence. By the time Barnes, 18, started school at Riverview this past November, she’d already attended at least 13 schools. There was the public school specializing in science and math. The school attached to a foster home up the street from a roadside amusement park. And the residential school in Youngstown, Ohio, where the academics were a joke. Barnes, who re-entered foster care at age 12 after spending a few years in the system as an infant, had moved more times than she could count. With each move, she had to change schools.
Often, with each transition, something went a little wrong. This fall, after relocating to an independent living facility for foster youth in the Cincinnati Public Schools district, she missed weeks of class while waiting to enroll at Riverview. She spent her days at home or in the park, occasionally writing in a journal and in an app on her phone. Her absence from school meant she had to make up a quarter’s worth of coursework. The Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, which is called in on complex cases like this one, worked with Riverview to obtain Barnes’ academic records and ensure her previous state test scores and credits would count toward graduation. When Barnes eventually started her senior year, other challenges arose: The approach to teaching math was different from what she was accustomed to; in English, the class had already read half the assigned book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”; and many of her classmates had known each other since elementary school.
Even with the gap in her academic record, Barnes was accepted to Cincinnati Christian University on March 3 — her birthday. The college is a small local school overlooking the skyscrapers downtown. And while her attendance at Riverview has declined in recent months, as the academic calendar draws to a close, she is still on track to graduate this year. But sometimes she can’t help but think of the numbers that reflect what she’s up against, and it’s sobering: The chances of young people in foster care finishing high school by age 18 are roughly 50 percent. The odds of their going on to college are even lower, 20 percent. Just 2 to 9 percent obtain a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s not even in the double digits,” she says. “That’s scary for me.”
As of September 2016, roughly 428,000 children were in foster care nationwide, a number that’s increased recently, in part because of the opioid epidemic. By the time youth in foster care reach their junior year, more than a third will have switched schools at least five times. The consequences for young people are significant. With each move, students lose an estimated four to six months of academic progress.
The reasons for these low success rates are manifold — trauma from the abuse and neglect that foster children routinely suffer, the absence of dependable adults in their lives and a lack of financial support. Frequent, disruptive school moves compound the problem. Child welfare agencies have historically paid little attention to schooling when they move youths to and from foster homes. Caseworkers rarely discuss educational goals with children. School officials have been unable or unwilling to quickly enroll students, and are happy to send challenging pupils, in particular, off to the next school.
In recent years, however, a growing recognition of this problem has resulted in federal legislation aimed at keeping foster kids in their “school of origin.” The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2015, required local education systems to work with child welfare agencies to stabilize schooling for young people in foster care. Now, schools must collaborate with child welfare agencies to report data on graduation rates for foster children, immediately enroll these children in school as soon as they move to the new zone or district, or help shuttle students to their original school, if that’s in their best interest. Each local education agency is also required to appoint a contact person to collaborate with child protective services.
“There are very few things that mitigate the experience of being in foster care more than school success,” says Michelle Lustig, director of the foster youth services coordinating program and homeless education services for the San Diego County Office of Education. “It’s taken us so long to get this issue in the spotlight and I just don’t want to lose it.”
Earlier this year, Congress and the Trump administration rolled back the law’s accountability rules, though most of the provisions pertaining to kids in foster care remain in place. Child welfare advocates fret, though, that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is unlikely to prioritize implementation. “I am concerned based on Secretary DeVos’ actions since her confirmation that she will not stand up for our most vulnerable students,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who co-sponsored ESSA, said in an email. (A spokesperson at the Department of Education declined an interview request.)
Hamilton County, which encompasses Cincinnati, is among a handful of places that’s been trying to improve collaboration between schools and child welfare officials for some time. In 2008, local leaders working with Legal Aid, child protective services and the juvenile court sought to educate school officials about issues facing foster children. They arranged a meeting at a nearby elementary school with a large population of students in foster care, expecting to deliver a straightforward presentation. Instead, they were bombarded with questions: How do I get in touch with a student’s caseworker if his voice mail is always full? How do I know which county has custody of the child? How can a student be expected to pass math when the child welfare agency is removing him weekly from math class for visits with his mother?
In response, the agencies and the schools began to chip away at barriers to foster children’s school success. They extended operating hours so foster kids wouldn’t have to miss school to visit their parents or see a counselor, they used financial incentives to prod contractors to prioritize academic achievement, and they hired education specialists and selected point people for foster youth in every school. The program — Kids in School Rule! — was expanded to all Cincinnati Public Schools in 2012, and currently serves 308 youth. Between 2014 and 2015, the most recent period for which data is available, 86 percent of participating students remained in the same school all year. All but one of this year’s 18 seniors is expected to graduate in 2017.
Program leaders also trained magistrates in juvenile court on school issues and developed a “judicial bench card” that judges use to review foster youths’ academic progress. On a recent morning in his small sixth-floor courtroom, Magistrate John Coleman, who presides over abuse and neglect cases, inquired after the school status of five siblings who’d been taken into temporary custody after their mother drunkenly attacked one of the kids at a sports practice and fought with other parents and police.
On this day, the mother sat across from Coleman, looking composed, in a pink sweatshirt and hoop earrings. Her recent toxicology screenings had all been negative. The parties discussed whether her children could move back in with her while the county retained legal custody. Coleman asked if the kids would have to transfer schools when they returned home. No, he was told. Their foster home was only five minutes from the mother’s house, in the same school zone.
Arranging transportation so students can avoid changing schools is perhaps the most significant requirement of the new federal law, ESSA. In the past, transportation often depended on the willingness of individual schools or foster families. But the law does not spell out exactly who will pay transportation costs or how disputes between schools and child protective agencies will be resolved. Still, at least there’s now a legal mandate requiring schools to keep kids enrolled, if appropriate, when they change homes.
The lack of transportation is why Brianna, a 16-year-old in neighboring Butler County, had to leave the school she’d attended since fourth grade. (Brianna’s last name is omitted per the county child welfare agency’s rules regarding minors.) Three years ago, she was placed in a foster home in a different school district. For the rest of that academic year, her foster mother agreed to drive her the half hour to and from school. But the next year, her foster mother declined to act as chauffeur, and Brianna had to enroll at the district school, Middletown. The school, in a small Ohio city north of Cincinnati, was bigger and more chaotic. Brianna made friends there, but her grades were a slate of D’s and F’s.
Jonathan Ford, a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio’s Butler County office, says ESSA has compelled schools and child welfare agencies to find solutions in cases like Brianna’s. In 2014, he says, “there was no legal hook for me to try to force anyone to act.”
Brianna was lucky: She forged a good relationship with the family who’d adopted her cousin; when her foster mother went on vacation, the couple agreed to take her in. The stay was meant to last only two weeks, but Brianna packed all her belongings, including the scrapbook her fourth-grade teacher had bought her (still empty because she never had family photos to fill it) and the gray nail polish that was one of the few things her mother gave her. The couple, who quickly became her new foster parents, filed to adopt her. They also enrolled her in a different school, one Brianna says is a better fit. Today, her grades are mostly A’s, B’s, and C’s. After high school, she wants to attend college, maybe for education or social work.
As Kids in School Rule! was getting off the ground in Hamilton County, child welfare officials there started a separate program, in partnership with the University of Cincinnati, that encourages foster kids to consider going to college and helps them get there. That program is known as Higher Education Mentoring Initiative, or HEMI. Given the magnitude of challenges youths face as they age out of foster care, the program has evolved from providing academic mentoring geared at getting kids into college to focusing on employment and certificate options in addition to four-year degrees, says project director Rayma Waters. Under a bill signed last year, young people in Ohio, unlike those in many other states, can stay in foster care until age 21; HEMI tries to keep in touch with participants through college graduation.
Perry Thomas, 18, who graduated from Western Hills University High School this May, says he hears from his HEMI mentor, Orville McDonald, on a weekly basis. The two bonded over football — Thomas plays receiver and McDonald got a full ride to Kent State on a football scholarship. Thomas has been in the foster care system his entire life, bouncing between Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia before settling with a foster mother in Cincinnati at age 10. That home was more stable than his previous placements, he says, but “the older you get, you realize that’s not your family.” It was football that really saved him, he says.
He hopes to play at University of Cincinnati Blue Ash, where he has been accepted for the fall. He also plans to major in social work. “I’ve been around it [social work] basically my whole life,” says Thomas. McDonald helped him apply for scholarships and financial aid. (HEMI awards scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, and foster youth are also eligible for up to $5,000 through a joint state-federal program.)
Barnes’ path to college feels more precarious. She’s not sure she’s ready to leave her independent living facility, where the staff is trained in helping foster youth transition to adulthood, for a dorm across town on the Cincinnati Christian campus. A slowly deflating pink balloon, left over from her birthday, floats at ceiling height in her one-bedroom apartment. On the coffee table are CDs from the public library, where she often studies. She knows how tough it’s been to get through high school; these last few months, in particular, have challenged her confidence and calm.
But she wants to keep writing, major in English and minor in communication arts, and maybe go into journalism one day. Perhaps she’ll even write a book.
“It’s coming up soon,” says Barnes, of her deadline for notifying Cincinnati Christian if she’ll be enrolling in the fall. “I don’t want to make a decision at the last minute. I want it to be thought through.”