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Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Some 424,000 children nationwide were in foster care in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Twenty-six thousand of them each year age out of the system, often while still in high school. Given the lack of stability in their home lives, it is as important for American public education to keep them on track towards high school and college graduation as it is to do so with all children in the care of schools. But more often than not, the kids end up aging out and dropping out.

Just 20 percent of 13-year-old foster care kids attending Chicago’s public schools in 1998 graduated on time five years later, according to a 2004 study by Chapin Hall, lower than the 52 percent five-year graduation rate for all Chicago students based on eighth grade enrollment used by Dropout Nation; the foster care kids were twice as likely as the overall enrollment to land in prison or jail. In Southern California, just nine percent of the foster care middle-schoolers attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District were proficient or higher on the state’s achievement test in 2006-2007, nearly two times lower than the atrocious 22 percent rate for students in the district overall.

Only 15 percent of foster kids attend the kind of college preparatory courses they need to prepare for higher education, versus 32 percent of the general population. And just 1.8 percent of Oregon and Washington State kids in foster care between 1988 and 1998 had earned a bachelor’s degree, lower than the national average of 24 percent, according to a 2005 study by Casey Family Programs; a mere 16 percent of the foster kids surveyed had earned a technical degree.

The abysmal academic performance of kids in foster care all but ensures that most of them will end up in poverty or prison during their adulthood; based on the admittedly sparse data available, the unemployment rate for foster kids who had aged out two years earlier is around 51 percent. They are at risk of becoming the kind of parents who end up spawning more kids into the child welfare system who will also end up struggling in school. High-quality schools with nurturing cultures of genius, high-quality teachers, rigorous curriculum and thoughtful, strong school leadership can help offset the instability that these young men and women face in their lives. It can only happen if school reformers consider how their efforts can also extend into improving lives for these children in the cares of the schools they want to overhaul.

As with juvenile justice systems, alternative high school programs and special ed, foster care is another area that school reformers tend to avoid. The reasons are similar: Child welfare, which consumed $26 billion in federal, state and local funding in the 2005-2006 fiscal year, is as complex a system as American public education; it also has the additional complexity of family courts that oversee the placement of kids and the long-term viability of families that land before them. Like the juvenile justice system, child welfare systems are also scary places for reformers because there aren’t any relatively easy answers; the solutions for dealing with laggard teacher are far easier to develop and even implement than it is to proffer ways for solving neglect and abuse.

Joshua Mendoza. Photo courtesy of NPR

Then there is the reality that many of the problems considered by child welfare systems — the abuse and neglect of kids that lead to foster care — isn’t a problem of American public education. That lies with parents whose lack of emotional intelligence and empathy for children make them unfit to bear them in the first place, and, to a lesser extent, those whose economic circumstances make it difficult for them to fully provide all that their kids need. It is also a community problem, with entire swaths of cities tangled up in the child welfare system (and even fewer healthy examples of functioning families). And the system touches upon moral and personal responsibility issues, including such matters as out-of-wedlock births and the decline of two-parent households spurred on in part by the pernicious legacy of the public welfare system. For some school reformers touching on these moral issues while addressing the systemic problems may be a bridge too far to walk

There’s also the fact that child welfare system remains as dysfunctional as ever, in spite of efforts by advocates as diverse in thinking such as Richard Gelles, Richard Wexler and Conna Craig to end the reunification of children with clearly abusive parents, bring more-comprehensive services to those families that should remain together, and speed up adoption so that kids don’t languish in foster care. If it is a struggle for dedicated experts to address what ails child welfare, then it will also be difficult for school reformers.

But it is critical for reformers to consider what is happening in child welfare. Why? Start with the reality that the very problems plaguing American public education — especially poor reading instruction and the lack of reading remediation — especially impact kids in foster care. Twenty-six percent of the foster kids attending school in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2005-2006 were labeled as special ed cases, double the already abysmal 11 percent rate for all L.A. Unified students and 13 percent of all children nationwide that year. In Chicago, 45 percent of sixth-to-eighth grade students in foster care were diagnosed with learning disabilities, three times the rate of the overall student population; a fifth of those students are diagnosed with emotional disturbance, versus one percent of all students. While some of these kids have real disabilities, others may have educational issues that have more to do with illiteracy and home instability than with cognitive ability; improving their reading skills by third grade would offset many of those academic issues.

Kids in foster care are also more-likely to be subjected to the harshest school discipline, especially when they have also been labeled as special ed cases. In L.A. Unified, the out-of-school suspension rate for foster care students is 12 percent, higher than the eight percent for all students. The fact that foster kids don’t have families who can fight for improving their education means that they often get the worst American public education offers.

There’s also the fact that the kids in foster care also tend to be the poor and minority kids that end up being shortchanged the most-often in American public education. In rural and suburban areas, the kids are poor whites. In urban communities, it is poor blacks and Latinos. Young black children make up 39 percent of L.A. Unified’s foster child population, while only accounting for a tenth of overall enrollment. Figuring out ways to make schools stable, nurturing and rigorous centers of learning for these kids will help advance the goal of reforming education for all of them.

The social impact of low-quality education also plays into the problems of child welfare. The young men and women who are caught up in child welfare come from households whose parents went to the same dropout factories and failure mills (and paid the price in the forms of economic and social despair). With 150 high school teens dropping out every hour, this means even more young adults becoming parents who may not be equipped educationally (much less emotionally) to do the job. In essence, overhauling America’s public schools can also stem the number of kids who end up in foster care as well as short-circuit cycles of educational failure.

This isn’t to say that schools can solve all issues plaguing families. But high quality, caring schools can ultimately be safe havens for foster kids and for all children. One step schools and districts can take is to help foster stability for foster kids in school even when they are in constant transition. One way to do this is through the development and use of more-robust data systems that can inform teachers and principals about what is happening with kids; the need for better data, by the way, is also a problem in the child welfare system and one that school reformers can help address through their overall work. Better data on students would help teachers, social workers and administrators team up on addressing these issues (along with the other issues that contribute to low student achievement).

Another way school reformers can help foster care students succeed is by teaming up with the grassroots organizations, churches  and even courts who deal with foster kids on improving the quality of instruction, curricula, reading remediation and leadership in schools. This would also further the other reforms — including the expansion of charter schools and even blended learning options; the latter could help foster kids catch up in their studies and stay on the path to college and career success.

As with the juvenile justice system, school reformers cannot afford to ignore the child welfare system. Far too many kids not only find themselves in unsafe homes and instability, but in academic neglect and malpractice. Addressing both issues will also help these vulnerable young men and women write their own stories.

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