Michigan education leaders join push to help youth in foster care graduate on time

A calculator sits on a desk as students work in a math class at Southeastern High School in Detroit, MI. Photo by Anthony Lanzilote/Chalkbeat �June, 2019 photo�
The Michigan State Board of Education is joining an effort to help ensure a better education for children in the foster care system. (Anthony Lanzilote / Chalkbeat)

Christian Randle expected to spend his senior year in a dual enrollment program that allows Michigan students to receive college credit while still in high school.

Instead, he’s working toward just a high school equivalency certificate.

He told the State Board of Education on Tuesday that he’s frustrated and feels like he’s starting high school over at age 17, because he’s been unable to get credit for schoolwork he did over the last five years while living in a series of foster homes and residential facilities.

Christian, who now lives in a group home in Farmington, addressed the board at its December meeting along with several other teenagers and young adults who were removed from their homes because of  abuse and neglect. They’re asking the board to help ensure that others like them can graduate on time and with a solid education.

More than 10,000 children are in foster care in Michigan, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. About 40% of Michigan students in foster care graduate high school in four years, compared with 80% of all students.

That has to improve, State Board of Education members said Tuesday after hearing from the students and representatives of the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services.

“We want systemic change,” said board member Tiffany Tilley, a Democrat, who introduced a resolution asking the Legislature “to amend laws that will guarantee that vulnerable youth receive credit-bearing educational programming that will keep them on target to receive high school diplomas and allow them to access post-secondary opportunities.”

Board members unanimously approved the resolution but did not specify what legislative changes they want to see.

Foster youth and their advocates have a lot of ideas.

Above all, they want a law ensuring that foster children have access to accredited education programs.

Because of a shortage of traditional foster families, abused and neglected children are sometimes placed in group homes or in large residential facilities alongside children with mental health issues, drug addiction, or histories of juvenile delinquency, said Saba Gebrai, director of the Park West Foundation, which advocates for foster children. Students in these settings have restricted freedoms and often aren’t allowed to leave even for school, she said. 

Instead, the facilities run classes themselves, and the programs might not be accredited, attorney Judith New of the Michigan Children’s Law Center said in a telephone interview. “These kids could be spending years of time in residential placement and then coming back to a regular school and having that school say, ‘You have no transferable credits at all. You have to start over in ninth grade.’”

Current law requires residential facilities to provide education services but does not require that the programs be accredited, which means their courses may not count toward state graduation requirements.

The Department of Health and Services, which contracts with residential facilities, did not immediately respond to questions about the lack of accreditation requirements.

Consequences for students can be dire

Tilley, the board of education member, learned about the systemic academic struggles of foster youth over the summer when she met a group of teenagers at a meeting convened by the Park West Foundation, which works with young people as they age out of the foster care system. Several believed they were earning high school credits during stays in residential care or juvenile justice facilities but left the programs years behind their peers, she said.

“My heart really went out to them,” Tilley said.

She wanted the rest of the state board to hear what she did, so she invited advocates and clients of Park West Foundation to December’s board meeting and introduced the resolution. 

Consequences can be dire for children who are moved from place to place without consideration of their educational progress and continuity, Gebrai said in a telephone interview. Many drop out of school in frustration and live out their lives in poverty, because they don’t qualify for jobs that pay enough to support themselves, she said. 

“They’ve already experienced so much trauma in separating from their families and from having experienced abuse, and this is another trauma of the same kind,” Gebrai said. “This is one more thing that’s going to exclude them from society.”

Gebrai wants courts and social workers to think about each child’s education plan before moving them to new foster homes or residential facilities. It’s not just about academics, she said.

“It’s having the same friends,” she said. “There’s dances, activities, sports, building memories and connectedness to a community.”

The Park West Foundation advocates only for foster care children — those removed from their homes for their own protection — but those placed in residential facilities for other reasons also would benefit from the changes advocates are requesting, Gebrai said.

NBC News previously reported on the state’s failure to provide a quality education to children in residential facilities.  

How a student scrambled to make up credits

Bryanna Cook, now 21, was never in a residential facility, but she, too, fell behind her peers as she was raised in a series of foster homes starting at the age of 5. During high school alone, she changed schools more than 10 times, sometimes moving in the middle of a semester — too early to take final exams, but too late to receive credit in the new school, she said.

“It’s hard to get a footing anywhere or get the proper help or even know what school is about when you’re constantly moving,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.

As she entered senior year, Cook knew she wouldn’t have enough credits to graduate, so she enrolled in an online program on top of her regular classes at Lincoln High School in Warren. She took eight classes a day in person and five online to make up credits.

“My counselor told me she didn’t think it would be a good idea, that it would be too much, but I decided to do it anyway,” Cook said.

She remembers juggling “The Outsiders” for a 10th-grade English course while reading “Lord of the Flies” for 11th-grade English and practicing persuasive writing techniques for 12th-grade English.

“It was a lot,” she said.

That was three years ago, but the memory of that stressful time was fresh, she said, as she testified before the state school board.

“All foster children and youth in Michigan must have the same access and opportunities as everyone else to prepare for high school graduation, earn post-secondary credentials, and reach their full potential,” testified Cook, now a student at Macomb Community College.   

Foster youth advocacy group outlines its proposals

Cook and other current and former foster youth presented a slate of legislative proposals they developed as members of Empowering Foster Youth Through Technology, an advocacy group supported by the Park West Foundation.

Among their proposals are laws that would:

  • Ensure that youth in residential placement have easy access to accurate transcripts.
  • Require foster parents to enroll foster children in school within one day of placement. (Current law allows five days.)
  • Ensure student transportation to school.
  • Require judicial oversight of student transfers between schools.
  • Increase stipends for foster parents to promote placement with families instead of residential facilities.
  • Provide support for children in foster care who are behind academically.

“A lot of that needs to happen,” Tilley said after the presentation.

State Superintendent Michael Rice agreed.

“First thing we need to do is get into the Legislature and make sure there’s no such thing as a non-credit-bearing course in Michigan public education, not for anybody,” he said. “Not acceptable.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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