It’s Time for Some Stability

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Class act! Principal Nauiokas and students at Mott Haven Academy in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy Jessica Nauiokas)

Every year, hundreds of thousands of youth enter the foster care system in America and become one of our most vulnerable groups of students, as each move from home to home is frequently accompanied by school transfers and educational disruption.

As the principal of a school specifically designed to meet the needs of children in foster care, Mott Haven Academy in the Bronx, I have seen how factors like unnecessary school transfers and untrained educators allow child welfare-involved youth to fall through the cracks. As a result the country’s half-million foster children have poorer attendance rates than their peers, are less likely to perform at grade level, are more likely to have behavior and discipline problems, are disproportionally assigned to special education classes, and are less likely to attend college.

Fortunately, the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and joint guidance released today from the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) finally shine a light on the unique educational needs of children in foster care. As a school leader, I eagerly await the day in December 2016 that these provisions go into effect for our students. In many places, your address dictates your school zone and for foster care youth, addresses change frequently. Imagine being in second grade and, overnight, you are pulled from the only caregivers you have known and moved to a new home. The next morning you are enrolled in a new school, introduced to a new teacher, and expected to make new friends.

Over the last 10 years, I have witnessed countless times when transportation has been a barrier to preserving a school placement, but when addressed, the results can be lifesaving. In 2015, my colleagues and I tracked the “transitions” of one of our young scholars and found that in the six years we knew her, she had moved nine times – from foster care back to her biological mother twice, in and out of shelters, and from two more foster homes until reunited with and adopted by her original foster family. During those years of crisis and uncertainty, we worked tirelessly with city agencies to keep her at our school and solve the transportation issues. Instead of becoming a statistic, this young scholar thrived. She created healthy attachments with teachers and gained comfort from supportive friends. She moved from being three academic years behind her peers as a second grader to a fifth grader with grade level skills. She trusts people again. And she loves school.

For many children in foster care, school is the one predictable and safe place in their life. Adding to the trauma and crisis caused by a new home placement by placing children in a new school of strangers is preventable. I am hopeful that the new foster care provisions in ESSA and guidance from ED and HHS will assist more school systems in taking the steps necessary to protect the educational experiences of youth engaged with child welfare. Let’s give them the stability they so desperately need and deserve.

Jessica Nauiokas is principal of Mott Haven Academy Charter School and a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.