California is home to more than 55,000 foster kids - the largest population in the country. And, the one place in the state where most of those kids come together is in public school. Jetaine Hart, a former foster youth and current educational mentor in Alameda County, argues that’s where we should be putting resources to help foster kids – kids who often shuffle from school to school and have unstable home lives.
JETAINE HART: When you look at the outcomes for youth in foster care in terms of education, incarceration rates, and mental health issues, and dependency on public assistance all of those things, when it really comes down to it, we’re gonna pay more for that in the long run than if we invest in them now.
Hart helps foster kids navigate school successfully. And Daniel Heimpel, director of Fostering Media Connections, works to bring political attention to what really helps those children.
DANIEL HEIMPEL: We do not focus enough attention on tapping the latent potential in foster care. And I think a critical feature of that is our inability to really seriously focus all our attention on ensuring they get through school.
Heimpel and Hart spoke with KALW’s Holly Kernan about foster and educational reform in California.
DANIEL HEIMPEL: I think that you need to find answers to the overarching problem that children in foster care are moving from home to home quite often, and moving from school to school quite often. On top of that, they’re aggregating in schools that are worse off.
HOLLY KERNAN: So they are in the lower performing schools, generally?
HEIMPEL: Yes. This is out of Chicago. You really see a clear percent. It's clear that these children are aggregating in schools that are doing poorly.
KERNAN: And that's true here in California, as well. In Alameda County that's definitely the case.
HEIMPEL: I would imagine. I haven't seen those statistics myself. But these are the issues.
JETAINE HART: I work with older youth, 15-19 in Alameda County, and I have several young women who have changed schools maybe five times since I started working with them in May. This is because of placement change – they are moving from Oakland to Richmond, to Hayward – and in doing that they're changing schools.
Alameda County is pretty good about keeping kids in their school of origin when it's in their best interest. But their problem is public transportation, getting them to school. Yes, we have BART and we have buses, but the reality is that a young person of 17 is not going to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning to get to school in Hayward when they live in Richmond.
KERNAN: And you have a lot of people say, "I did it but I had to advocate for myself in such a strong way. I had to show why I could stay at my school.” I think Commissioner Sokhom Mao told us about that. Daniel.
HEIMPEL: Right, of course. Sokhom’s story becomes more and more famous. The situation for him was he wanted to go to school in Oakland – my school. But he was living in a good placement in Hayward. He liked his placement but wanted to stay at his school.
So this is very interesting in terms of laws and those things that get a little seemingly esoteric, are important. You know, in California, with the passage of AB 490, which focused on this issue of school of origin and school of best interest, those kind of questions. That actually was pretty far ahead of the game for a lot of things. And California was ahead of the game. That influenced federal policy to start looking at this issue of, if there's one place where you can find stability, we better do our best to make sure they have that opportunity to stay in that school. Now, of course, there are other issues. The transportation is going to have to be dealt with.
KERNAN: So what would you change if you could change the system?
HEIMPEL: Well, I think that major thing is to have schools really understand that it is their duty to ensure that if it's in the best interest of the kid to stay in their school district, then they should stay there. I think it's also important to see that we have funding, and I know no one wants to talk about funding! But I would love to see funding for transportation. I don't want to see that a kid is somewhere, and there's no money to take him by bus to the school so it's not in his best interest anymore. Those are some of the things that I think are very critical.
KERNAN: What's your recipe for change?
HART: When I look out at schools, I see young people who are embarrassed. They are so far behind that they are embarrassed. Just even being in a classroom with their peers when they should be in eleventh grade and they're maybe doing 9th grade work they still don't understand.
How do we make classroom settings that make these young people feel comfortable? Comfortable enough to ask for help, comfortable enough to know they aren't the only person who doesn't get math because they haven't done it in years. Like a ninth grader who hasn't done math since fifth grade and doesn't know the basics of multiplication and division.
The biggest concern I see is that you can't expect these people to go to school every day if they aren't comfortable and if they aren't understanding the work.
KERNAN: So let's talk policy. What's happening that's exciting and how does the fact that we are cutting back on public services right now – we are at a time where we are cutting the caring services, on our teachers, on our public schools, on our public institutions – how does that factor into policy change?
HEIMPEL: Well the easy case is the financial case, right? So that's the one that everybody likes to make because that's the way people speak in this day and age. I don't think it's necessarily the best case but, okay. You have the Perry Preschool model that looks at children in early education in Michigan and you extrapolate that 40 years down and you see that every dollar you spent, you spent when they are little preschool kids that are from a socio-economic-hurting areas – you get a $17 return for every dollar you spent on them initially. It's not even a question that our economic investment in children pays off down the road.
KERNAN: So if you don't care as a moral imperative, you should just care as a bottom line.
HEIMPEL: Well, yeah. You should care as a bottom line. It is the only bottom line that makes sense. I think that focusing on children is clearly a good investment but beyond that, I mean, what are we going to have? I don't understand. I don't see it anymore. What are we going to have if we're going to keep on investing in things that aren't our own people? Wars and those kinds of things.
KERNAN: What are kids telling you they want? What are they saying they need to be successful?
HART: All of my kids, actually, say they want to go to school. They all say they want to go to school and that they want to do something. They want to go to college, or they want to do this.
I think it's really hard to get them motivated when no one is at home. Last week, I actually picked up a young woman from her foster home and drove her to school, dropped her off in her classroom to make sure she got there. And part of it was because her foster mom was already at work. No one was being held accountable for if she was going to school. These are little things, but we want them to be held accountable and no one is doing it.
I am so inspired by the young people I see that I work along with my colleagues that grew up in foster care and they are brilliant. They are resilient; they have so much passion to change the world. Somebody planted a small seed for them and they have taken it and grown so much. Myself included – I feel like somebody took the time to say, "We believe in you and you're going to do something, and I'm here now." And I am so proud to say that I grew up in foster care and had that opportunity for other people to support me. I wish other young people had that support as well.