Gail Johnson, Josh Sales
“It’s hard going to a new school. You don’t know anybody. When teachers say, ‘Tell us about yourself,’ it’s scary. Your story is not like anybody else’s.”
Meet Josh Sales. He’s been the “new guy” at 20 different schools and in and out of foster care for years. Living in motel rooms and a car since moving from Tennessee with his mother to make a new start, he came to the attention of authorities. He landed in foster care and has not seen his mom in three years.
Sales is graduating this spring, thanks to the Bakersfield High School educators who spent the last two years helping him make up missing credits. He plans to attend college and become an architect.
“It’s difficult living with different people in foster care,” says Sales. “You get close to them, and when you leave, it can get pretty bad. You get used to doing stuff a certain way, and then you go to another foster home and do something in a completely different way. It’s a huge adjustment.”
It can also be an adjustment for educators when foster children enroll, whether for brief or extended periods of time. Because they are often victims of poverty, neglect, violence and sexual abuse, students can be angry, depressed and lagging behind academically. They often have “gaps” in their education from moving around so much, and may not receive course credit they have earned. Sales, for example, had to repeat Algebra I because his records were not sent from a previous school.
He’s received support at Bakersfield High School from his counselor, the school librarian and a math teacher who bought him new clothes. But at times it feels awkward.
“Foster kids don’t want special treatment,” says Sales. “We just want to be treated like anyone else. We don’t want a fuss; we don’t want to be the center of attention.”
Sales is one of nearly 60,000 children in foster care, which includes youngsters living in group homes as well as traditional foster homes. In addition to being separated from biological parents, they often are separated from siblings.
At 18, Sales would have “aged out” of the foster care system if not for a law passed last January that allows youths to stay in foster care up to age 20. They must meet eligibility requirements of completing high school, being enrolled at least half time in college or a vocational program, or being employed at least 80 hours a month. The law addresses high dropout and homelessness rates of foster youths forced out of the system.
Records, records, where are the records?
“School may be the most stable place in these kids’ lives,” says Gail Johnson, foster youth liaison for the Kern High School District. “We want to give children stability, to be in a school where they can grow roots, make friends, get involved and be successful. They need to fit in and belong somewhere.”
New laws have made that easier: AB 490 and companion bill AB 1933 expand students’ right to remain in their “school of origin” despite changes in foster placement so they won’t lose school credits or their friends. Transportation costs must be reimbursed to foster parents by the social service agency if the school district does not cover them.
“I want to make sure foster kids have the right classes and receive all the credits they deserve when they come into my district,” says Johnson, Kern High School Teachers Association. But it is challenging when foster youth arrive without school records. According to state law, schools are supposed to transfer students’ records within two days.
But that doesn’t always happen, says Johnson. “Students must be enrolled whether they have school records or not. So a counselor may talk to the student, who says ‘I took English’ or ‘I took history,’ but that is not as accurate as it could be. Was it regular, remedial or college prep English?”
Johnson works closely with social workers and the Department of Human Services to help foster kids get the classes and extra support they need, including tutoring and counseling. Biological parents can be involved in a child’s educational decisions, depending upon specifics of the individual cases.
“We can’t find parents, more often than not,” says Johnson. “I have personally told juvenile court judges that we don’t have the manpower to hunt for the parents. It’s frustrating. In my county, 99 percent of the time a judge leaves education decisions to the biological parents.”
“These kids come without a lot of documentation, and teachers have no background on how to deal with them,” says Carol Locke, a teacher at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School located in Pasadena, which has a high percentage of foster homes.
When children are used to being in control, it’s challenging for educators
Little things can trigger big reactions. Teachers see students go into a panic after seeing a white car outside the classroom window because they feared it was someone coming to take them away. A teacher’s pat on the back for a job well done caused a student to jump out of his chair, scream obscenities and assume a fighting position because he had been physically abused.
Foster kids tend to suffer from depression, anxiety from fear of abandonment, hypervigilance or the need to scan for danger or surprise, and antisocial behavior, according to Nancy Verrier, a marriage and family therapist and author of “The Primal Wound.” They struggle with distrust of those in authority, a sense of loss, feelings of shame from moving around so much, a lack of control, identity issues from trying to blend in with new families, memory issues and poor concentration.
When teachers don’t understand a child’s background, they may unwittingly set off “triggers” causing emotional meltdowns, like the Pasadena teacher who patted a child on the head, causing him to go ballistic.
Teachers can also unwittingly cause emotional upheaval by asking students to do simple assignments, like drawing a picture of their “family” or reading a story about a happy family. “These kids don’t have a family, so the word ‘family’ can be a very painful word,” says Locke, herself a former foster child.
“For kids who come from so-called normal families, hearing foster kids talk about their experiences can be really awkward and uncomfortable. They might talk about abuse or different homes where they’ve lived. The classroom may be the first place they feel safe mentioning these things for the first time. It has to be handled sensitively, and it’s something there is no staff development training to prepare you for.”
When that happens, Locke has a “magic circle” for the entire class to take a few moments and talk about their feelings and show support for one another.
The most difficult time for a foster child may be after supervised visits with biological parents, which can leave them feeling devastated, says Susanne Pillay, a Redwood City Teachers Association member who has also been a foster mother.
“These kids have been pulled out of living situations that are, in some cases, horrendous. But even if they have been abused, most of the kids love their biological parents and want to be home with their family,” says Pillay.
Teachers can be taken aback by students who may be used to telling adults what to do, but they shouldn’t take it personally, says Pillay.
“These students are what I call ‘adulterated’ because they have assumed the parenting role,” she says. “I had a student who had been reminding his mother to pay the bills since second grade because she was strung out on drugs. He felt responsible for his family’s finances. When children are used to being in control, it can be a challenge for teachers.”
Pillay advises teachers to cut foster parents some slack. There are meetings with social workers, mental health workers, doctors and others, and they may have scant time to meet with teachers.
“They are ‘meetinged’ to death, so I e-mail foster parents quite a bit,” she says. “And I don’t blame the foster parents for a child’s behavior, because they are doing the best they can. When I was a foster mom, I often felt like I was being attacked by teachers. They’d say your child is doing this or your child is doing that, and I was trying very hard to get a handle on it. Teachers should remember it’s not easy for foster parents to deal with children who have been ripped away from their family.”
While foster students want to be treated like any other student, there are differences, and teachers must make allowances.
Foster children are estimated to lose six months of emotional development with each new placement. So a 14-year-old with four lifetime placements may be closer emotionally to a 12-year-old.
“Simple things like table manners may not have been learned,” Pillay explains. “Be patient, because children are learning things in layers. Their parents may have been preoccupied, and a child never learned not to run and scream while at school.”
Don’t expect a foster child to trust you immediately, warns Lisa Guzman, Ada Givens Elementary School teacher and Merced City Teachers Association member.
“If you promise something, follow through with it, because if you break that promise, it will take a long time to get that trust back,” she advises. “Don’t put them in a situation where they feel cornered or targeted. You want to keep them on task, but you don’t want to focus attention on them in front of the class.”
Teachers should not take it personally if a foster child lashes out at them, can’t focus in class or acts out, she says. The child is not reacting to the teacher; he or she is reacting to past events.
“Consistency and good classroom management help, because these kids, in general, haven’t had a lot of structure. Listen to them. Let them know you are there for them. Tell them you care about them. Let them know you have high expectations.”
Fostering a path to college: resources
“Teens in foster care are full of hope and motivated to keep going regardless of obstacles. But when it comes to college, their biggest challenge is learning how to navigate the system.”
Blanca Arteaga, the foster youth liaison counselor at Gavilan College in Gilroy, says it is common for foster teens to apply to college and not follow up. She tries to track them down, sometimes without success.
“If they are living at a friend’s house or temporarily with relatives, don’t have a job, and are experiencing trauma from moving place to place, college is challenging,” says the Gavilan College Faculty Association member. “Yet many foster youths want to succeed and better their lives. I’m here to assist them any way I can. Our college recently added a foster youth question to the admissions application so we can identify and help them.”
Teacher reaches out to others in the ‘club’
“It was nerve-wracking. I knew there were things I couldn’t do or say or else I’d be in moved again. You could be moved for the slightest provocation on your part. That was always hanging over your head. You couldn’t really trust anybody.”
Growing up as a foster child wasn’t easy for Carol Locke, a special education teacher at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena. Her mother died when she was just nine days old; her father couldn’t cope with a newborn and four sons.
They were put into foster care and separated not only from him, but each other.
“School was always a good place for me, where I could perform well,” recalls Locke, United Teachers of Pasadena. “In school, I got all the accolades I didn’t get at home, and very quickly came to the conclusion that education was my ‘out’ of the system. So I made sure I was a shining example and constantly got awards. That caused problems with my peers because I was always singled out.”
She considers herself lucky because she only lived in three foster homes before adulthood, compared with her brothers, who had many. They nicknamed her “the princess” for her good fortune.
When Locke has a foster child in her class, she shares her background with them privately. She likens it to being part of an “exclusive club” that results in a bond with that student. It is common for children to receive a stuffed animal when moved into foster care, and she shows them her “dolly” that was given to her by one of her foster mothers. Locke also gives them a code word so she’ll know when they need to talk.
“I can see they are having trouble, and I say, ‘I’ll see you in my office,’ which is really the hallway. Sometimes they need a space to talk when they are not in front of the other students. It usually doesn’t take very long — and it’s time well spent.”
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