States Stepping Up to Provide Support for Foster Kids’ Education

California is beginning a special funding program for foster children, the first of its kind, to improve the educational experience and to meet the special needs of these children as well as to hold teachers and administrators accountable. Lisa Leff, writing for Associated Press, says that the first step is for state officials to establish how many foster students are school-age and at which schools they are enrolled.

The new program will provide billions in extra funding to schools based on how many foster, low-income, and English Language Learning children are in each district. Schools have submitted their projections on how additional funding will be spent. The districts will have to report foster children's educational statistics to the state starting next year. Molly Dunne, a lawyer with the Alliance for Children's Rights in Los Angeles says:

"It's a whole new world. They are a very small group of students, they are lagging so far behind and for them to be included with these much larger populations of students focused the attention on the great level of need they have. And that's only right because these are our kids, the state's kids, and they are doing the worst."

Not only have foster children lagged behind in math and English, but they have also dropped out of high school at higher rates than other "at-risk students. Unlike other at-risk children's groups, the needs of foster care student have gone "unrecognized and unmet".

In the past, information concerning the foster care students enrolled in school was private to avoid having the students stigmatized or their privacy violated. New regulations are going to require that schools get a weekly update on these students. Jesse Hahnel, director of the Foster Youth Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law, believes these new practices will help students.

"If they don't know who their kids are, they can't design a program for them. It's not like there is a big group of parents advocating on their behalf," Hahnel said.

At this time, there are an estimated 42,000 school-age foster children in California. In Los Angeles, the allocated funds will provide 92 guidance counselors, behavior specialists, attendance monitors, and service coordinators to assist the foster care students.

Michael Jones, a teacher in Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, is dubious.

"You can't fund decency. You can't fund caring. And unfortunately, that's a big problem with the system right now is the mindset is we will throw money at it and we will make things better," Jones said. "There is not enough money on the planet to put people in kids' lives who actually care and are there because they think it's the right thing to do."

Jones actually cares and has founded a weekly class for foster kids just to let them vent, get toiletries, and school supplies that he bought or were donated.

According to Mike Pignataro, writing for Millburn-Short Hills Patch, winning the 2013 Vision Award from the Association of Junior Leagues International for their efforts, New Jersey Junior League of the Oranges and the Short Hills (JLOSH) and the Junior League of Montclair-Newark, Inc. (JLMN) take part in an Education and Career Fair to help youth from 14-21 transition from foster care to independence.

The fair includes: workshops; college tours; social service agencies; healthcare experts; law guardians; and the presence of businesses providing jobs and apprenticeships.

In Florida, writes Theresa Campbell for the Daily Commercial, the extended foster care bill will help older teens further their education. The bill, signed by Govenor Rick Scott in May 2013, allows young adults to remain in foster care until age 21 when accomplishing their educational goals. Stacy Morgan, director of Healthy Start at Kids Central, Inc., says this legislation was sorely needed.

"This will give our young adults leaving the foster care system more security and a smoother transition into adulthood," Morgan said. "Most 18-year-olds who didn't grow up with abuse or neglect aren't ready to go out on their own at 18, and these youths aren't either. Extended foster care gives them the safety net they need for a few more years.

And in Montana, says Gail Schontzler of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle,  Camp A Step Ahead – Building a Path to Success is giving teens a chance to figure out how to pay for college. Sponsored by the state's Department of Public Health and Human Services and the non-profit Student Assistance Foundation, the camp shows students in foster care that they are in charge of their own future.

Foster kids are eligible for up to $5,000 a year in federal Chafee grants for attending college. If they attend the camp, which is free, they leave with sponsor-donated laptops. Here, they also learn about banking, student debt, goal setting, healthy eating, how to apply for federal tuition vouchers, and how to search for scholarships.

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