Children stream out of Ella Flagg Young Elementary School in the West Sde neighborhood of Austin at the end of a school day this fall. Young is one of the city's largest elementary schools, and has one of the highest numbers of foster children. (Photo by Andre Vospette)

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

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

McGhee was a ward of the state, and the official guardian listed on his school records was the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Caseworkers are supposed to check on wards at their schools every week. But McGhee said he didn’t see a caseworker that entire year.

His foster parents talked to him about the importance of education, he said, but they were preoccupied with their four other foster children and trying to make a living as tailors.

For a semester, McGhee, then 17, hardly went to classes. He said he spent most of his time hanging out with friends on the street or sitting on his bed, feeling alone. Eventually he decided he would not go back.

Like McGhee, thousands of foster children, recently removed from abusive or neglectful parents, show up in Chicago public schools with a host of personal problems. And many of them end up in just a small number of the city’s 600 schools, shows a joint investigation by The Chicago Reporter and CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform.

The concentration results from a DCFS policy that strongly encourages placement with relatives, experts say. Because most wards come from poor, black communities, that’s where they often stay, and end up in some of the city’s lowest performing schools.

Almost everyone involved agrees with this much. But the effects of this concentration are the subject of a contentious debate.

A recent study of foster children in Chicago Public Schools revealed that these boys and girls perform worse than their classmates and their national counterparts.

School principals say they need more help serving foster children. But DCFS officials say principals are using these children as an excuse for poor performance.

And children’s advocates say the schools, communities and the state all need to do a better job.

“I say they have to make up their damn minds,” said Thomas C. Vanden Berk, president and executive director of the Uhlich Children’s Home, which runs 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.”

The debate is complicated by the fact that both the Chicago Public Schools and DCFS acknowledge neither agency has accurately tracked foster children in the schools.

However, according to the only comprehensive data available, which was drawn from school records in the 2001-2002 school year, 20 percent of these children were enrolled in 32 schools–”13 high schools and 19 elementary schools. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, an independent research group, gave the Reporter and CATALYST the data, which includes children whose legal guardian is either DCFS or a non-relative.

Researchers at the consortium stress that the data exaggerate the number of foster children per school because the numbers weren’t updated regularly and most likely included children who were no longer in the child welfare system or who otherwise lived with adults they were not related to.

Still, “I will go with this as the record of children who have ever experienced abuse and neglect,” said Melissa Roderick, director of planning and development for CPS.

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

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

Like the Reporter/CATALYST analysis, the DCFS study found that foster children were concentrated in the most troubled schools–””a disturbing issue,” wrote Maria Vidal de Haymes, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of social work at Loyola University Chicago.

When asked in October about the study, DCFS officials said they rejected some of its conclusions about school performance, but agreed foster children generally did worse than their classmates.

Greatest Needs

Whether DCFS or CPS is responsible for educating these children depends on who’s being asked.

Some principals say it is hard to meet performance goals with a significant population of students whose family lives have been disrupted. They say they do not have the trained staff to deal with the personal issues many foster children bring to school.

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

But DCFS officials stress that most of the children were struggling in school when they were living in difficult environments with their biological parents.

And preliminary results from a yet-to-be-published DCFS study show that children who came into foster care in 1995 did better than they had before they were removed from their parents. As the schools were undergoing reforms, foster children progressed at the same rate as other CPS students, but never caught up with them.

“So these were the sickest of the sickest in many respects,” said Jess McDonald, the director of DCFS. “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’?”

Although McDonald rejects the complaints from principals, in the past five years DCFS increased its spending on educational support services from about $800,000 to more than $9 million. About $1.2 million went toward a program that provides services for wards in some Chicago public schools.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan said 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 currently forming a committee to discuss how to better teach children in special circumstances, such as foster care.

“This is not about blaming anyone,” Duncan said. “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.”

Since December 1991, DCFS has had a specific legal obligation to make sure its wards are educated, said Benjamin S. Wolf, associate legal director of the Illinois 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 said.

After talking to parents, teachers and principals in his West Side district, state Sen. Rickey R. Hendon concluded something must change.

“These are the schools with the greatest needs and they are the kids with the greatest needs,” said Hendon. “The two just aren’t compatible.”

During the past legislative session, Democratic lawmakers sponsored two bills that would have altered the school funding formula and, ultimately, would have meant more money for school districts with high numbers of foster children and those that have been adopted through DCFS. But neither was passed, and Hendon blamed Republicans.

Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican who chairs the senate’s Public Health and Welfare Committee, said DCFS should be keeping an eye on the progress of foster children in school.

Yet, ultimately, the job of making sure foster children get a good education falls on individual foster parents and schools, he said. Syverson believes enough extra federal and state money is 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 said. “That should be leveling the playing field, and, if that is not happening, then we need to look at that.”

Needing Attention

In the middle of the debate about educating foster children are young men like McGhee.

McGhee doesn’t talk much, and when he does, he often speaks in clipped phrases and mumbles. He is not one to complain. But he said that he never felt as though he fit in at Austin Community Academy High School.

He didn’t feel like he was learning much in class, and, among other students, “there was a lot of goofing off.”

He traces his seriousness to Dec. 7, 1992–”the day DCFS took him from his mother’s house. McGhee didn’t want to talk about why he was placed in DCFS custody, except to say, “If I had to stay with my mother, I would probably be dead.”

He remembers that, when he was taken away from his mother, he was scared. McGhee was originally placed with an older sister and brother, he said. When that didn’t work out, he went to a foster home in Austin where he stayed for the next 10 years.

Bordering the suburb of Oak Park, Austin’s western section has old, stately Victorian homes. Other areas have residential streets lined with little bungalows and Cape Cod homes. In the summer, bursts of flowers light up the lawns. On almost every corner are signs either stating block club rules or principles of unity.

Still, the per capita income in Austin is $13,616, while the city average is $20,174. The Austin police district had the city’s second-highest number of drug arrests last year. In late September, a tree had become a makeshift memorial–”a piece of posterboard was tacked onto it that said, “I love you uncle Tyese.” Below were about 20 empty champagne bottles.

During the 2001-2002 school year, the community had seven of the 32 schools with the highest numbers of foster children, more than any other neighborhood in the city, according to the Reporter/CATALYST analysis.

McGhee maintains that he never completely dropped out of school–”he just was absent more often than he was present.

He knew someone at a small alternative school less than two miles away. Seven credits short of graduating from high school with a D average, he enrolled in Austin Career Education Center, at 5352 W. Chicago Ave., in December 2000.

Principal Anne Gottlieb said McGhee would confide in her and other staff that he had problems with his foster parents and was itching to leave their home. At times McGhee’s desire to move out on his own seemed to overshadow his determination to get a high school diploma. “He struggled, even here,” Gottlieb said.

But Gottlieb and the staff at the school of about 250 students were convinced he was bright, and they stayed on him. Every day at the school, students touch base with advisers. Gottlieb also knows most students by first name and makes it a point to check in with some of them daily.

Sometimes McGhee would just come to Gottlieb’s office and sit, she said. She would ask him if something was the matter. And he would say no.

“I figured he just needed some attention,” she said. “He just needed someone to say, –˜How are you?'”

In June, McGhee got his diploma, and this summer, at the urging of Gottlieb and her staff, he enlisted in the Navy.

On Sept. 30, dressed in his all-white naval uniform with shiny black shoes and a sharp haircut, McGhee came back to the school to say goodbye. He was leaving in two days for his first assignment, in Newport News, Va.

McGhee talked excitedly about the Navy, saying it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He smiled, and his dimples lit up his face. He said he is not as shy as he used to be.

He was only sad about one thing: His biological mother had vanished. “Last time I heard, she was living somewhere on the South Side.”

McGhee wanted to see her, but not to chastise her or show her his anger. “I want to let her know how I am doing,” he said.

Getting Out

Many advocates and directors of social service agencies believe that, once DCFS and CPS realized foster children were concentrated in poor neighborhoods, they should have made sure the children had a range of schools to choose from.

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 at least two times more likely than others to be in special education. On average, foster children move four times before finding permanent homes, according to DCFS.

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

After having spent years in the system and working his way through college and into a good job, Fred Long said he can see the sense in sending foster children to schools where they will be around other students motivated to learn.

Long was placed with his grandmother in Roseland at age 9. She often struggled to care for Long and his eight brothers and sisters. On the good nights, she made “soup kitchen”-sized pots of chili. On the bad nights, they had to share packages of ramen noodles.

Long’s grandmother, who was then in her 50s, stayed after him to get good grades, he said. Also, a counselor at the school reached out to him, and a caseworker got him involved in programs that took him out of his neighborhood.

“It’s the truth–”if you surround yourself with positive people you will achieve more,” said Long, now 23 and a youth development assistant for Uhlich Children’s Home.

But Long said his younger 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 said.

Long and two older siblings are the only ones 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,” he said.

Mary Ann Alexander has adopted four foster children and is taking care of another little boy, who she assumes she will eventually adopt. Part of her job, she said, is to demand that state and school officials respond to her children’s needs. (Photo by Andre Vospette)

Speaking Up

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

Foster children are ending 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, about two-thirds of the students in their attendance areas go to schools elsewhere, according to the Reporter/CATALYST analysis.

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–”which find foster parents–”to hold them responsible.

Carol Martin said being involved is part of her job as a foster mother. DCFS provides each foster family with a monthly payment of $400, on average. Foster parents can get more money if they are licensed or if they are caring for children with special needs.

In late September, Martin stood on the concrete steps of her pink stucco house and noted that the knob on the front screen door had been removed. A DCFS caseworker told her that one of her two foster children probably took it out to keep her from locking him in the house–”something a previous foster family probably had done to him. “It makes you really, really mad,” Martin said with a scowl.

But she refuses to let any of this get her too upset. Her five biological sons taught her not to get too worked up over any one incident, she said. “You know, you just work it out no matter what comes up. You just learn to deal with it.”

Part of her job as a foster mother, she said, is to be patient and to make others who work with her kids develop the same kind of patience.

It helps to spend time in the schools, getting to know teachers and administrators. Martin describes one recent 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 picked on him while he stood in the lunch line.

Martin said she immediately got on the phone with the principal and asked what happened.

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

Mary Ann Alexander, 56, and her husband, Prentiss, have seven biological children and 14 grandchildren. They have adopted four others from the foster care system, and they have another foster child they assume they’ll adopt eventually.

Alexander thinks her job is to give her foster children a lot of “tender loving care,” and to fight for their needs to be met both by the schools and by DCFS.

Four of Alexander’s foster children attend Ella Flagg Young Elementary School, at 1434 N. Parkside Ave. in Austin. It’s one of the largest elementary schools in the system, with 1,749 students last year. DCFS and CPS agree that it also had one of the highest numbers of foster children, though their figures differ widely. According to schools data, 196 Young students were living in non-relative care in school year 2001-2002. DCFS officials say the current number is much lower.

Alexander meets a lot of other foster parents at Young and hears them complain about DCFS. But she believes it’s her responsibility to get the state to respond to her children’s needs.

“Only the foster mother really knows what the child needs,” she said. “You see the child everyday.”

Overcoming Odds

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

DCFS caseworkers tell of their frustration at working 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,” said Thomas Robinson, Young’s dean of students and head disciplinarian. “I get frustrated.”

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

Mary, 17, said she had little help as she tried to negotiate her way into a good school.

Mary, whose name has been changed 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 said.

“It is not too good,” said 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 said 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 convincing 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 said. “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 said. “A long walk with my head down.”

Contributing: Maureen Kelleher, an associate editor for CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform.

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.