Young Elementary
Credit: photo by Andre Vospette

When Tyrone McGhee began missing classes at Austin High School halfway through his sophomore year in 1999, few noticed. The tall, quiet young man says not one teacher or counselor called his house or tracked him down.

“Some of the students cared,” he says. “My friends were like, ‘Hey, where’s Tyrone?'”

McGhee is a ward of the state, and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is his official guardian, school records show. Caseworkers are supposed to check on wards at their schools every six months. But McGhee said he didn’t see a caseworker that entire year.

His foster parents talked to him about the importance of education, he says, but they were preoccupied with their four other foster children and their work as seamstresses.

For a semester, McGhee, then 17, hardly went to classes. He says he spent most of his time sitting on his bed, feeling alone. By the time his report card came with mostly Ds and Fs, he decided he would not go back.

Like McGhee, thousands of children removed from abusive or neglectful parents and placed in foster care show up in Chicago public schools and try to learn despite a host of personal problems. Many of them end up in just a small number of the city’s 600 schools, a joint investigation by The Chicago Reporter and Catalyst: Voices of Chicago School Reform shows.

During the 2001-2002 school year, the community of Austin—where Austin High School is based—had seven schools with high concentrations of foster children, more than any other neighborhood in the city, according to the Reporter/Catalyst analysis.

The concentration creates an extraordinary challenge for schools under intense pressure to raise student achievement, school principals say. But DCFS officials counter that principals are using foster children as an excuse for poor performance. Children’s advocates, however, say the schools and the state both need to do a better job of educating these children.

“I say they have to make up their damn minds,” says Thomas C. Vanden Berk, president and chief executive officer of the Uhlich Children’s Home, which houses a residential program, school and traditional foster care program for wards of the state. “If they are going to put all these foster children in a couple schools, then they have to put some money in these schools. Or they should spread them out.”

Public officials in the child welfare system say the concentration is a side effect of a DCFS policy that strongly encourages placement of foster children with their relatives. Because most wards come from poor, black communities, that’s where they often remain. Clouding the issue is a lack of firm data. Neither the Chicago Public Schools nor DCFS accurately tracks foster children in the schools, both institutions concede.

The Chicago Public Schools does collect information on a child’s legal guardian, who is classified by relationship. A category for “non-relative guardian” includes wards of the state and other children whose legal guardians are not parents or other relatives. According to the most recent data, 20 percent of these children in 2001-2002 were enrolled in just 32 schools (13 high schools and 19 elementary schools) on the South and West sides of the city. The worst-case example is a school of more than 1,700 with close to 200 of these children enrolled.

Ten years ago, only two special education schools had 10 percent or more of these children enrolled. Last year, 42 schools had crossed that threshold.

However, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which supplied the data to the Reporter and Catalyst, cautions that they exaggerate the number of foster children per school because they are not updated regularly and most likely include children who are no longer in the child welfare system or who otherwise live with adults they are not related to. The Consortium is an independent research group based at the University of Chicago.

“I will go with this as the record of children who have ever experienced abuse and neglect,” says Melissa Roderick, director of strategic planning with the Chicago Public Schools. She is also a director at the Consortium.

DCFS officials dispute the data. “It is wrong,” says Martha Allen, chief of staff to DCFS director Jess McDonald. However, Allen concedes that DCFS does not have historical data on where foster children have attended school.

Almost all of the students in the high-concentration schools were black and 92 percent were poor, CPS data show. And most of the schools were low-performing: All of the high schools and eight of the elementary schools were on academic probation for at least one of the past five years.

Foster children are winding up in high schools that other parents don’t want their children to attend. For seven of the high schools with large numbers of foster children, two-thirds or more of the students who live within their attendance areas have fled elsewhere. (See Catalyst December 2001.)

The 2000 study commissioned by DCFS concluded that foster children in Chicago performed far behind other CPS students, and had frequently dropped out or were listed as “could not be located” by the time they reached high school.

Like the Reporter and Catalyst, the researchers found that foster children were concentrated in the most troubled schools—”a disturbing trend,” wrote Maria Vidal de Haymes, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of social work at Loyola University.

Asked about this study in October, DCFS officials rejected some of its conclusions. The study was subsequently removed from the Web site of its publisher, the Child and Family Research Center at the University of Illinois, where it had been posted since December 2000.

Greatest needs

Whether DCFS or CPS is responsible for educating these children depends on who’s being asked. Since 1992, DCFS has had a specific legal obligation to make sure its wards are educated, says Benjamin S. Wolf, associate legal director at the Chicago chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “DCFS is failing to be a decent, responsible parent, which is especially bad considering we took these children away from their parents claiming we could do a better job,” Wolf says.

Most of the children were struggling in school when they were still living in difficult environments with their biological parents, says Jess McDonald, the director of DCFS.

“So these were the sickest of the sickest in many respects,” he says. “The question is: Where were those schools serving those kids before they were in foster care—and tell me again the responsibility of the child welfare system for public education.

“Don’t you think it is a little ludicrous for a principal to say, ‘I am not doing well [and] my teachers are not doing well at teaching because my kids aren’t smart enough. … I need a better class of clients’?”

Legalities aside, school principals simply want more help. They say it’s difficult to meet CPS performance goals with students whose family lives have been disrupted. They also say they do not have the time or energy to deal with the personal issues many foster children bring with them to school.

“What more can schools do?” says Christopher Robinson, who is the assistant principal at Mildred Lavizzo Elementary School, at 138 W. 109th St. in Roseland. “I think there is already too much put on the schools.”

CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan says he believes teachers and principals are working “extremely hard” to meet the needs of all their students, and the central office must provide them with more help if they need it. His staff is forming a committee to discuss how to better teach children in special circumstances, such as foster care.

“This is not about blaming anyone,” Duncan says. “The question is, ‘How do we help to break these cycles?’ These are the children most at risk and we have to devote ourselves fully to make sure these children succeed.”

After talking to parents, teachers and principals in his West Side district, State Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) sponsored two bills that would provide extra financial resources for schools that serve foster children. “These are the schools with the greatest need and they are the kids with the greatest needs,” says Hendon. “The two just aren’t compatible.”

But neither of his bills passed, and Hendon blames Republicans.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican who chairs the Senate’s Public Health and Welfare Committee, agrees that DCFS should be keeping an eye on the progress of foster children in school. However, he says that ultimately the job of making sure foster children get a good education falls on individual foster parents and schools.

Syverson believes there is already enough extra federal and state money flowing to schools with lots of at-risk children. “If you total up all that money from [federal education] programs like Head Start and Title I, then it is a lot,” he says. “That should be leveling the playing field, and, if that is not happening, then we need to look at that.”

Getting out

Many directors of social service agencies and advocates believe it was a failure of DCFS and CPS not to realize, until recently, that the policy of placing foster children with relatives would concentrate them in poor neighborhoods whose schools have few resources.

In addition to struggling with family problems, many foster children have special education needs and don’t stay in one school for long. Experts estimate that foster children are two to three times more likely than others to be in special education. On average, foster children move eight times before finding a permanent home, according to DCFS.

“We need to send these children to schools that have the capacity to deal with these life situations,” says Jerry Stermer, executive director of the Chicago-based advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children. “We need schools that can take the time and [have] the resources.”

Fred Long, who lived with his grandmother and seven siblings as a foster child, spent years in the child welfare system, working his way through college and into a good job. He says it makes sense to send foster children to schools where they can be around other students who are motivated to learn.

Long says he had more support than most foster children. His grandmother stayed after him to get good grades, a counselor at the school reached out to him, and a caseworker got him involved in programs that took him out of the Roseland community where he lived. “If you surround yourself with positive people you will achieve more,” says Long, now a youth development specialist for Uhlich Children’s Home.

But Long says his brothers and sisters have had a hard time. By the time they were coming up, his grandmother was getting older and no longer had the energy to “chastise” them, he says. (See related story.)

Long is the only one who graduated from high school. His youngest sister is now five months pregnant at age 13. “My brothers and sisters are still trying to find themselves.”

Speaking up

A lack of parental involvement is one reason foster children fail to get a good education, especially in large systems like Chicago’s where a mother who presses for a child’s schooling can make a big difference, Loyola’s Vidal de Haymes says.

Previously, social service agencies and foster parents faced no consequences if the children in their care didn’t go to school or do well there. But DCFS is currently working on re-writing the contracts they have with social service agencies—who find foster parents—to make the agencies responsible.

Carol Martin says part of her job as a foster mother is to be patient and to make others who work with her kids develop the same kind of patience.

She describes an incident involving her foster son, Dwight, who is a sophomore at Austin High School. Dwight came home from school and complained that a security guard in the cafeteria was picking on him. Martin followed up with a call to the principal to find out what happened.

“Once [the principal] realized that Dwight was one of Mrs. Martin’s boys, everything got cleared up fast,” she says. “Everyone knows me there. And, once they knew that someone cared about Dwight, they treated him differently.”

Mary Ann Alexander and her husband, Prentiss, raised seven biological children, most of whom are grown, and have adopted four others from the foster care system. They also plan to adopt another foster child who is now in their care.

Four of Alexander’s foster children attend Young Elementary in Austin, a school that enrolls more foster children than any other public elementary school, CPS and DCFS officials agree. But their figures differ widely. According to CPS, 196 Young students were living with non-relatives last year; DCFS officials cite a much lower number for this year.

Alexander says she meets other foster parents at Young and hears them complain about DCFS and the school. But she believes it’s her responsibility to make sure the school and DCFS respond to her children’s needs. “Only the foster mother really knows what the child needs,” she says.

Overcoming odds

The breakdown in the education of foster children might have less to do with DCFS placement policy and more to do with problems the schools and DCFS have in getting things done. On the ground level, the debate is between caseworkers, social service agencies, school clerks and principals.

DCFS caseworkers tell of their frustration at trying to work with schools on the simplest things, like registering children for classes. They say they frequently spend days waiting in school offices for paperwork to arrive while the children sit at home. School staff counter that they have to spend large amounts of time trying to figure out who is responsible for foster children—time that could be spent preparing lesson plans.

“You call one number and it is disconnected, you call another number and the parent tells you the child is no longer with her, and then you call the social service agency and the caseworker is new,” says Charles Robinson, Young’s assistant principal and head disciplinarian. “I get frustrated.”

It’s even more aggravating for the young people involved.

Mary, 17, says sometimes she had no help as she tried to negotiate her way into a good school.

Mary, whose real name can’t be used because she is still a ward of the state, lives in an apartment by herself as part of a transitional living program.

Although the other residents of her apartment building are also wards, she often feels alone, she says.

“It is not too good,” says Mary, a tall black girl who wears her hair in a tight ponytail and has dark brown, almond-shaped eyes. “It is not what you would expect if you were living at home. Because I am in foster care, I have to grow up faster.”

She says she wound up in the transitional living program as the result of one bad placement after another.

For her, school was always a safe haven, the one place she could go to escape the chaos in her family life. As a young child, she lucked out because, even as she moved from one house to another, she was able to stay in the same school. Mary had the grades and motivation to go to a magnet high school, but had trouble persuading the administration that a foster child could make it there. After getting straight A’s for a year in a poor-performing high school in her neighborhood, she was allowed to transfer.

But even at her new school, she often feels singled out. “On every attendance sheet, next to my name it lists DCFS as my guardian,” she says. “Sometimes the office will call me using the public announcement system, saying, ‘Mary, your caseworker is here.’

“That is always a long walk from the classroom to the office,” Mary says. “A long walk with my head down.”

Sarah Karp is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter . Catalyst Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher contributed to this report.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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