Throughout my childhood, school was an oasis from my chaotic home life. I reveled in learning new concepts and thrived off of the validation my teachers offered me. The classroom was the only place where I received consistent affirmation and felt safe. When I became a foster child at the age of fifteen, my education became one of my primary concerns. I was afraid that my education would be affected, and my fears were soon confirmed.
My social worker informed me that there were very few foster homes for someone my age, and that it was highly unlikely that I would find a permanent place to stay until I graduated from high school. Changing foster homes frequently would have interfered with my ability to stay at my high school, and I was not willing to give up both a stable family and a stable education. Instead, I learned that a law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act would allow me to remain in my high school when living outside of the school district as long as I met the act’s definition of homeless. In Connecticut, foster youth placed in emergency youth shelters receive McKinney-Vento protections, and I chose to live in emergency shelters in order to maintain educational stability.
Although I did not have a physical house to call home, the administration at my high school provided me with the nurturing and stability that I so desperately needed. One staff member that impacted me tremendously was my school social worker, Mrs. Dietter. Whether it was a pep talk over a school lunch or a tearful conversation as I left school to an unpredictable home, Mrs. Dietter constantly validated my fears and instilled within me the belief that I would be victorious over the present life trials. My life circumstances could have easily rendered me a failed statistic, but it was with Mrs. Dietter’s guidance and support that I am the successful and happy adult that I am today. In many ways, I believe she serves as a model for how a school staff member can best serve vulnerable students.
One of the ways that she ensured my success was by offering me “tough love”. While she acknowledged that my home life was reason to be upset, she did not allow me to use my tribulations as reason to perform poorly in the classroom. Mrs. Dietter expected that I strive to achieve excellent grades in every class and that all school work was completed on time. She would be disappointed when I would slack off in the classroom and would remind me that I was a very capable student. At the time, I thought that she was being too harsh but in hindsight I realize that her insistences pushed me to live up to my potential. If she had not pushed me to achieve all that was possible, I would have let myself fail.
Fortunately with the passage of the Fostering Connections Act (FCA) in 2008, Congress recognized the importance of a consistent educational environment for students in foster care. Now youth in foster care are entitled to educational stability, and coordinated efforts by child welfare and local education agencies must be made to keep them in their same school whenever possible. Another helpful provision of the FCA is the ability for states to extend foster care to the age of 21. The extension of services allows foster youth much needed supports as they attend college. I’ve personally benefitted from this provision in the form of tuition assistance and funds to afford housing during academic breaks.
I’ve gone on to become the successful adult that Mrs. Dietter knew I would become.
I graduated from the same high school in which I started, and am currently a junior at Quinnipiac University studying political science and women’s studies. My past challenges have been transformed into a narrative that I use to inform policy as an intern in the House of Representatives.
Though policy is key to improving the lives of vulnerable Americans, legislation is futile without members of the community stepping up to assist those individuals on a personal level. In the case of foster children, educators and school staff are often the only stable adults in that youth’s life, much like how Mrs. Dietter was the only consistent mentor I had throughout high school. Social and emotional learning are as important as core curriculum, and educators can use the relationships with their most vulnerable students as an opportunity to foster moral growth in those children.
Lexie Gruber, 21, is an alumni of foster care, and just finished her junior year as a political science major at Quinnipiac University.
On the heels of National Foster Care Month, the U.S. Department of Education released new guidance today to make it easier for caseworkers, child welfare agencies and tribal organizations responsible for the placement and care of children and youth in foster care to have direct access to their education records. Read more.