Children in foster care lead turbulent lives. Most have been victims of severe trauma, which can result in physical and mental disability, behavioral health challenges, and distracted behavior, all of which disrupt learning. Many of these children, after being removed from their parents, may not have any adult consistently supporting their academic growth – for example, by making sure they show up to school on time, encouraging them to do homework, or advocating that their special education needs be met. For these reasons, and others, it should be no surprise that other states have found that children in foster care often struggle in school.
Until now, however, Connecticut had no hard data on what that struggle means in terms of educational achievement. How great are these struggles in Connecticut, and what is school like more generally for children who are in or become involved with the foster care system? To begin to answer these questions, we conducted the first systematic study of the academic experience of children involved with Connecticut’s foster care system.
Our findings raise concerns about some barriers that may impede opportunities for success for these children and youth. Fifty-three percent or fewer of the students in DCF care in 2013 scored Proficient or better on their most recent standardized test in each subject (based on testing of students in care on September 1, 2013). These students were outperformed not only by the average Connecticut student, but also by the average low-income Connecticut student eligible for Free or Reduced Price Meals (a common measure of low socioeconomic status).
Children in foster care faced additional barriers to succeeding in school, including:
- Over half of children in foster care (56%) attend one of the 30 Connecticut school districts where students have the lowest average test scores. By contrast, 39% of all Connecticut students attend these districts, suggesting that children in foster care may be disproportionately concentrated in schools where their peers achieve well below the state average.
- Children in foster care were four times more likely than the average Connecticut student to have an identified special education need. While the need for special education services is not necessarily a barrier to academic success, national research suggests identified needs often go unmet for children in foster care.
- Children in foster care were more than twice as likely as the average Connecticut student to miss one or more out of every ten days of school. Such “chronic absenteeism,” has been linked by the State Department of Education to an increased likelihood of dropping out.
- Children in foster care were more than three times as likely to receive an in-school suspension, and nearly six times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension, than the average Connecticut student.
These findings are particularly troubling because national research has shown that academic deficits often follow children in foster care into adulthood, becoming a barrier to higher education and employment, and increasing the risk of poverty and homelessness.
There are evidence-based steps the State can take to improve the outcomes of children in foster care:
- DCF should do more to train foster parents to prepare them to be advocates for their children’s educational needs and to participate in the special education process, and DCF should be provided more educational staff to support these efforts.
- DCF should refer infants to early intervention programs such as birth-to-three, and enroll every toddler in a high quality preschool or equivalent early-learning program.
- SDE should require every school district to appoint a “foster care liaison,” to help facilitate the quick enrollment of students in foster care, so students do not miss excessive amounts of school, and to help schools work with DCF to meet children’s individual academic needs.
- Connecticut public schools should adopt the use of positive behavioral interventions; these interventions help address students’ underlying mental health needs in school, and have been shown to reduce the use of unnecessary exclusionary discipline.
- DCF social workers should consider the academic environment of schools in which they place students in foster care and, when doing so would not cause unnecessary school transfers disruptive to relationship building and learning, place students in schools where students are more likely to experience academic success.
When Connecticut chooses to remove children from their families to protect them from abuse and neglect, it does so with the implicit promise of a better life. However, a high quality education is often a prerequisite for that better life. Connecticut can and should do more to support children in State care and custody in school, so that every child touched by the foster care system is prepared to thrive in adulthood.