THE BLOG

We Can Save Foster Children Only by Educating Them

05/27/2015 01:11 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

When President Obama recognized May 2015 as National Foster Care Month, his Proclamation honored "those who dedicate themselves to making a difference." As the month draws to a close, those of us working in the foster care trenches need to take a hard look at where we are still failing these children.

Since 1997, the federal government has held states accountable for the "well-being" of children in their care. While the definition of "well-being" has evolved over time, as leader of an organization that has worked with thousands of foster children, it is clear to me that education is the key - and that education is where we should focus our energies.

Education of children in child welfare is a difficult challenge, but it is one we must address. ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrion has shown great leadership in urging the child welfare community to raise the bar and focus more specifically on "well-being."

Education is the one attribute that can overcome all other challenges. There are many examples of individuals who have overcome physical or mental health challenges - if they are well-educated. Likewise, education makes it far more likely that an individual, regardless of his childhood circumstances, will be able to earn a living, support a family and lead a productive life.

But without an adequate education, young people start out their lives in a deep hole. High school graduates earn an average of $260,000 more over their lives than those who don't graduate. College graduates earn an average of $830,000 more. The broader social costs are even greater: unplanned pregnancies, drug abuse, incarceration among disconnected youth, and long-term dependence on government-funded services for food, healthcare and housing.

Until we find ways to close the education gap for children in the child welfare system, we will never truly be able to ensure their well-being. Unfortunately, it will not be easy.

The New York Foundling launched Haven Academy, a K-5 charter school in one of the nation's most disadvantaged communities, seven years ago. With two-thirds of the students in the child welfare system and one-third from the school's neighborhood, we've surrounded them with extensive social services. Even in this environment, though, issues persist.

When compared to children in child welfare across the city, the child welfare students at Haven are doing very well, with significant improvements in their test scores. Clearly, we are making progress. However, when compared to children at Haven from the general community, who are making greater strides, the child welfare students continue to lag behind, demonstrating how complex this educational challenge remains.

Older children pose additional challenges. When they reach age 21, hundreds of these young people in New York City alone "age out" of the foster care system each year. Only 20 percent enroll in college and of those who do enroll, only 3 percent earn degrees. Lacking an adequate education, a family support system and the life skills most of us take for granted, one in four is incarcerated within two years and one in five becomes homeless.

We know that certain tactics work. We know that early education, like the pre-K programs undertaken by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, gets results. But we need to go further, expanding Head Start and Early Head Start programs and making them more available in communities with a high prevalence of at risk children.

We know that children in foster care require teachers with special training. Many of these children have been subjected to trauma or abuse, the neurological and psychological consequences of which are well-documented. They may respond unpredictably to seemingly normal gestures. Their behavior in the classroom may change if they've had a parental visit over the weekend. These issues go beyond what the typical teacher can deal with in a typical classroom.

For older youth - those who are closer to "aging out" - we have recently had great success with a new program to provide individual tutoring. In its first year, four times as many foster kids graduated high school and were accepted to four year colleges than we'd seen in any year previously. For those who are not college bound, we are poised to launch, in partnership with other organizations, an alternative program teaching the kind of advanced technology skills that will lead to good middle class jobs.

Clearly, these are only some of the potential answers. We need to continue to be innovative and aggressive. We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help these children while they are in our care. If we fail to educate them adequately during the time they are in our care, many of them will ultimately be lost - and we will end up spending millions more to deal with issues they present as adults.