Every Time Foster Kids Move, They Lose Months of Academic Progress

How instability wreaks havoc on these children's school lives—and what can be done to fix it
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Matt Slocum/AP Photo

When 12-year-old Jimmy Wayne’s parents dropped him off at a motel and drove away, he became the newest member of the North Carolina Foster Care system. Over the next two years in the foster care system, he attended 12 different schools.

“I don’t even remember what I learned—no, let me rephrase that—I don’t remember what they tried to teach me—after fifth grade,” he told me recently. “It wasn’t until I had a stable home and was taken in by a loving family in tenth grade that I was able to hear anything, to learn anything. Before that, I wasn’t thinking about science, I was thinking about what I was going to eat that day or where I could get clothes. When I was finally in one place for a while, going to the same school, everything changed. Even my handwriting improved. I could focus. I was finally able to learn.”

Wayne got lucky. He was taken in at 16 by an older couple who saw how desperate he was for a stable home and an education. He lived with them for the next six years, and they gave him the stability he needed in order to finish high school and college and launch a successful country music career. He’s become a national spokesperson for Court Appointed Special Advocates, a network of volunteers who work to make sure that abused and neglected children don’t get lost in the legal and administrative red tape of the foster care system.

Students in foster care move schools at least once or twice a year, and by the time they age out of the system, over one third will have experienced five or more school moves. Children are estimated to lose four to six months of academic progress per move, which puts most foster care children years behind their peers. Falling behind isn’t the only problem with frequent school moves: School transfers also decrease the chances a foster care student will ever graduate from high school. A national study of 1,087 foster care alumni found that “youth who had even one fewer change in living arrangement per year were almost twice as likely to graduate from high school before leaving foster care.” Right now, the United States’ more than 400,000 foster care children complete high school at much lower rates than their non-foster peers; decreasing the number of school moves for foster care students could translate to substantially more high school diplomas. 

Several pieces of legislation have tried to tackle the problem of school transfers from different angles. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 require child welfare agencies to have a plan in place for ensuring “educational stability of the child while in foster care.” The Elementary and Secondary Education Act and No Child Left Behind require schools to close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students, which led education agencies to identify high-risk students, like foster children, and work to address their specific educational needs. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act, passed in January 2014, grants childcare welfare agencies access to education records that were previously rendered private under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This allows agencies to retain up-to-date copies of school records, which expedites foster children’s transfers and academic placement. These laws are important first steps towards getting more foster care children to graduate: Enrollment delays, frustration over the inability to transfer credits, and the unnecessary repetition of partially completed courses are all factors that increase the chances that students will drop out of school before completing their education.

Still, foster care children face too much educational instability. Kate Burdick, an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow with the Juvenile Law Center, shared the changes she’d make that would greatly improve the chances that children in foster care get the educational stability they need: 

  • Schools must ensure school stability for children in foster care by requiring schools to be flexible around residency requirements in order to allow children to remain in the same school or district, and provide the supports to make that stability happen, such as reliable transportation and dedicated adult liaisons who can provide academic support.
  • Promote greater collaboration between child welfare agencies and schools in order to ensure that foster children’s particular educational needs are being met.
  • Collect tracking data on educational progress and outcomes, including attendance, school moves, enrollment delays and academic outcomes in order to reveal where policies and practices could be improved.

When I asked Wayne what he would change about the foster care system, he reminded me of the 50 percent of children who don’t—or can’t—finish high school by the time they age out of the foster care system. “If it were up to me, every state in the nation would extend foster care services through age 21 so foster kids can have the time they need to finish their education and graduate.”

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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