Opinion: Georgia must do better educating children in foster care

Richard L. Jackson is chairman and CEO of Jackson Healthcare. A former foster child, he is chairman of the board of FaithBridge Foster Care.

In this guest column, Jackson discusses the academic underperformance of children in foster care and the need for the state to address how to help these kids overcome the odds.

By Richard L. Jackson

Georgia’s graduation rate has steadily improved in recent years, and today almost 82 percent of Georgia students graduate on time – four years after they commence their high school education.

But when you look at foster children who are removed from dysfunctional families where there is neglect, abandonment or abuse –– the numbers are shocking. According to the state Department of Family and Children Services, only 18 percent of Georgia students ages 17 and 18 in foster care earned their diploma on schedule last spring. By age 19, the number rises to 33 percent, according to DFCS.

With a growing number of children entering foster care, we have an education crisis emerging for this special population of students who are not learning because of the emotional trauma they endured growing up in dysfunctional families.

That means as so many foster kids fail to get a high school education, many will repeat the cycle of having children in foster care.

Due to the skyrocketing opioid crisis in our state, there are a record number of children in foster care this year – 14,400, according to DFCS. Most have a host of issues they bring to the classroom from abiding by structure to emotional and behavioral problems.

Research by the Heritage Foundation found that American children in foster care are among the most at-risk and more likely to become homeless, incarcerated or on welfare. They have lower scores on standardized tests, higher absenteeism, tardiness, and truancy and dropout rates than their peers.

Foster care students don’t know stability. They rarely make long-term friends or have the luxury of staying in the same school long as they often move, are sent to live with a variety of family members or are placed with a host of different foster parents.

A study by the federal General Accounting Office found that third-grade pupils who frequently changed schools were more likely to perform below grade level in reading or math or to repeat a grade than were students who never changed schools.

Credit: David Carr

Credit: David Carr

Foster parents who want to help these children see this education gap up close and how these children struggle.

Cartersville residents Anthony and Lori Evans have been foster parents to four sets of foster children, and they say one of their most startling challenges has been fostering children who cannot function in the classroom. The Evans are foster parents now to two young boys and a girl from Marietta who had a tough time adapting to their new school in Cartersville.

Anthony Evans said their current foster children have been raised with the mindset it is acceptable to miss several days of school a week. The 12-year-old girl just learned to tie her shoes because she got so little attention from her biological parents, and no one at school helped her learn, he said.

But the greatest tragedy for the foster children in the Evans’ care and virtually all foster kids is they lag far behind their peers in educational milestones and lack the social skills to conform to a traditional educational setting. Due to neglect, many lack basic reading and writing skills when they are placed in foster homes and need intense tutoring, counseling and other help to try to adapt to school.

Perhaps the most common issue among foster children is that public schools label them special needs so they can get instruction with pupils with disabilities. But in many cases, these kids aren’t disabled but just emotionally challenged and need individualized attention and tutoring. With so many foster children suffering from anxiety and stress, many have chronic behavior issues and act out. Their resulting misbehavior often results in suspension or placement in alternative schools which can exacerbate the problem.

With a growing number of foster kids and so few earning a high school diploma, we have a growing educational challenge ahead of us. We need to find ways to give these kids the life skills they need because these are unique kids with truly unique needs.

When the Georgia Legislature convenes this winter, it needs to consider what it can do to provide more compassionate, stable education models, mentoring, testing and tutoring for these fragile kids who have been through so much. Just because their lives have been shattered at such a young age doesn’t mean the growing number of foster children in our state can’t become productive members of society.