School and Home

Boarding programs and other charter innovations mix elements of family life and education for foster kids in need of both

Until a few years ago, Emily Bloomfield had not thought much about the needs of children living in foster care. She had been working hard on education policy in Washington, and had served on the board of the local charter-school authorizer. But then she was suddenly given a front-row seat to the problems faced by kids who have had to be separated from their parents. The aunt and uncle of her husband took custody of their two grandchildren, after the mother and father’s parental rights had been terminated by a court. The grandparents, at their advanced age, weren’t sure they could manage full responsibility. But they knew the children needed someone to step up. So they did, and began seeking help from extended family and others. “This got me pretty obsessed” with the problems of children in foster care, says Bloomfield.

She points out that this situation is becoming increasingly common, thanks to family breakdown and drug addiction. More and more grandparents and other family members are being asked to step in for incapable parents, and they need help from their communities.

In her education-policy role, Bloomfield also saw a niche for a specialized school. Despite a thriving charter movement and a voucher program in D.C., foster youth still often found themselves without schooling options that matched their specific problems. So she founded a school just for them—a boarding school, where they live five days a week.

The charter school Monument Academy started its third year of operation in 2017 and currently has a fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade class, with plans to add one more grade each year until it serves kids through high school. Bloomfield says that when it comes to this population, “a lot of money is being spent on failure. The outcomes are terrible.” But she is hoping that Monument can “provide a proof point” that there is a way to educate these children effectively.

Lisa Bernstein, a member of Monument’s board and one of the early supporters of the school, made the same observation. Having been a coach and literacy teacher at various schools throughout the city, Bernstein tells me, “I had experienced personally that kid in your class who took up so much more energy and oxygen than all the other kids.” She remembers asking herself, “What can I do for this child? I am not enough.” Even “with the best-run schools and resources and the best principals, there is not enough bandwidth or programming or knowhow to address what these kids need.” As behavioral issues pile up, “their education slows down or pauses.”

To tackle these deep challenges, Monument has adopted a more personalized system of learning, used smaller classrooms, and built “de-escalation spaces” where kids can go to calm down (with an adult) if their behavior veers out of control. The school provides intense mental-health counseling and has formed a partnership with Georgetown University to address physical-health concerns. “So many kids come in with little or no medical attention,” Bloomfield tells me. Undiagnosed asthma that causes difficulty in breathing. Untreated tooth infections. “One child was so upset he pulled a tooth right out of his head.”

These problems, taken one at a time, can be addressed by a team of adults around a table. Monument works with each student’s foster parents—and biological parents if they are available. There is also an effort to work with caseworkers from family services, although current privacy laws make it difficult to share information between educators and caseworkers. (Another obstacle is D.C.’s very high turnover rate among caseworkers.) These challenges have led to Monument organizing more care “in-house.”

Monument uses a house-parent model in which ten students live with two adults in a wing of the school building during the week, eating their meals together and learning discipline, mutual support, and life skills like doing the laundry and setting a table. “We want to show them that this is what it’s like to live in a stable, collaborative family structure.” And, says Bloomfield, “we can ensure that they get a good night’s sleep, decent food, and hygiene.”

The boarding aspect of the program also addresses one of the biggest challenges for foster students—the frequency with which they move. As foster kids get transferred from home to home (sometimes back to their biological parent or simply between foster families) they are often forced to change schools. While many jurisdictions have legislation that allows a foster child to remain in the same school even if he or she moves outside of the neighborhood, this can be a logistical challenge if the school is too far away. Plus, many of the students who come to Monument have been expelled from previous schools.

Even with a strong team of adults, it’s a roller-coaster ride. Within the first six weeks of Monument’s opening, five kids out of the class of 40 were hospitalized. Monument found beds for them “in a place that knew what they were doing.”  It got them stabilized, perhaps had their meds changed. “And then we got them back into the classroom.”

There’s no place like school

The school is spending more than $50,000 per child on average, including room and board. That’s almost three times the amount spent on the typical D.C. student. More than half of the students qualify for special-education services, so that drives up the per-pupil costs. But D.C. also has a fairly generous charter program that covers most of the cost (including the additional allocations for special ed). The rest is supplied by private philanthropy.

Monument was launched with financial backing from the CityBridge Foundation, the family philanthropy of David and Katherine Bradley. CityBridge picked Monument as one of the winners of its competition for new schools and new-school models. It was looking for ideas that combined personalized learning with financial sustainability. Mieka Wick, CEO of CityBridge Education, a nonprofit the foundation started in 2017, tells me that the foundation was attracted to “an academic environment that will allow the teacher to be more of a coach and personalized partner.”

CityBridge Education sees its mission as getting schools off the ground, not sustaining them indefinitely. One of the first issues addressed is real estate. “Finding a building is one of the biggest barriers,” says Wick. This is true of most charter schools, but schools that cater to foster kids feel this problem more acutely.

Monument found an old D.C. public-school building, but it had to be renovated completely in order to make a separate space for the dormitories and de-escalation rooms. Schools for children with serious behavioral issues need a lot of space. Though Bloomfield is glad she found the building she did, she notes that there is not much outdoor space beyond a small courtyard. “These kids need to get out and run.”

CityBridge does not pick up ongoing costs, and has instead focused on helping Bloomfield assemble a board that will contribute financially and in expertise. This is part of its role as “an angel investor.”

Thanks to D.C.’s charter-school laws, about 93 percent of Monument’s costs are paid for by tax dollars. But the school has depended on private funding in order to make its environment more hospitable to students and to hire an appropriate amount of staff. There are also ambitions to provide more comprehensive health care.

The chances of replicating the model of Monument in other states depend in significant part on charter funding laws. Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina all have voucher programs for kids in foster care. And last fall, Oklahoma expanded a program for special-needs kids to include foster children as well. The school has committed since its inception to sharing its plans and best practices openly. There is a “knowledge center” on the Monument website that offers information to people who want to start something like this in their own community. While Bloomfield does not see herself creating another Monument—she might consider adding grades below fifth at some point—she would like to add a residency program that would train principals and teachers who want to do something similar. Monument already hosts social workers who are looking to do some clinical hours for their training.

No time like the present

There seems to be a new national urgency to efforts like this. There are over 400,000 children in foster care, and some states, including California and West Virginia, have seen a large surge in this population connected to the opioid epidemic.

Many foster children face chilling futures. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, one fifth of the 23,000 foster children who reach age 18 each year have nowhere to live. Only half will find gainful employment by the time they are 24. There is only a 3 percent chance they will earn a college degree. One recent survey showed 14 percent of prison inmates in California had at one point spent time in foster care. All of this costs society a significant amount of money—an average lifetime cost of up to $300,000 for individuals who age out of the system.

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Students at Monument Academy in Washington, D.C., live at school Monday to Friday.

New efforts to head off these costs and human heartaches have been launched in several cities. Haven Academy, a charter school for kids who are or have been in foster care, was established ten years ago by the New York Foundling, a 150-year-old Catholic charity that helps children in need, and expanded this fall to include a new middle school. Around the same time, Philadelphia became home to Arise Charter School focused on foster kids, which in 2015 converted to a private school called C.B. Community. Optimist Charter School in Los Angeles opened in 2013 to serve probation and foster youth. A school called Da Vinci RISE High in Los Angeles was one of ten schools in 2017 to win a Super School grant, a contest funded by Laurene Powell Jobs.

The RISE school started small—serving 30 students on one campus—but it will eventually grow to 500 students. The plan is to offer personalized learning to students who are moved along as they demonstrate mastery of their subjects, instead of the traditional movement through age-based grades. A project-based curriculum will focus students on real-world experiences, and internships and other practical experiences will provide a way of earning course credits.

Another project in the works is Sisu Academy, dreamt up by a former homeless kid himself. With an absent father and mentally ill mother, Jabez LeBret relied on friends for places to stay throughout high school, and teachers and counselors for support. Despite their best efforts, he did not graduate. “The system wasn’t set up to manage my situation,” LeBret says.

But his story wasn’t over yet. He beat the odds and earned his GED, and then a college degree. He eventually launched a successful career in marketing. All the while he was trying to help kids who were like him—homeless, in foster care, or otherwise at risk.

“I can speak firsthand to what it’s like to be in a new home every two or three weeks. It creates constant stress and uncertainty.” What these children needed, he realized, was a place just for them—one that would help them “develop important life skills.”

So LeBret is working on a boarding school in San Diego. He cites programs like Wasatch Academy in Utah (where boarded students work on a farm) and the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania (which has long educated orphans and poor children) as models for his proposed Sisu Academy. He envisions two business incubators and a working farm, and chances for kids to start their own business ventures that could ultimately provide some revenue flow for the school. His goal is for Sisu to be tuition-free. To that end, he’s secured corporate in-kind donations of furniture and software, and he is working on raising $16 million to welcome its first class of 80 students.

But residential schools are not the best option for every child, and experts in the field recommend keeping most foster children close to their biological or foster parents. A child entirely removed from his or her extended family or community is often more vulnerable to disorientation and abuse. And LeBret says “there is a direct correlation between the distance from family and the rates of foster-care kids going AWOL and disengaging from the system.”

But for children in extremely disorganized or dysfunctional families, a boarding school can be a saving grace. If the combination of a stable home and a decent education are the main predictors of adult success, then schools that offer these two things have a chance of dramatically improving life for some foster children, especially if they can expose the youngsters to a consistent group of adults who will care for them outside the classroom. Partial boarding also offers a respite for caretakers of these children, who are often under tremendous pressure.

A few years ago, some researchers at the University of Rochester revisited the famous “marshmallow test,” which evaluates a child’s ability to wait for a larger reward instead of grasping for a quick payoff. They determined that it was not simply some innate ability to delay gratification that allowed some children to wait. It turned out that the kids who came from homes where they had reliable adults, adults who delivered on their promises, were the most likely to succeed at the test. Children who came from environments where adults were constantly letting them down actually made a rational choice by grabbing resources quickly and running—because who knows if the offerer will really come back and fulfill the promise?

Bloomfield says it is these students who need places like Monument the most. “They live in a constant state of anxiety and watchfulness. Their lives are full of unpredictability. They keep experiencing loss.” Bloomfield hopes to give these students the social and academic tools they need to rebuild their lives on more stable ground. She doesn’t promise miracles, just improvement. “We can provide respite.” 

 

College Camp for Foster Kids

Another more-than-academic effort to intervene in the lives of foster children is called First Star, which runs summer programs on college campuses for adolescents in foster care.

The First Star program of South Jersey, supported by the Pascale Sykes Foundation, is now in its third year, with about 30 tenth- and eleventh-graders spending several weeks each summer at Rowan University. There students take at least one college-level class for course credit in addition to learning their way around a campus. Students also participate in a year-round program that meets every couple of weeks, where they receive tutoring for the SAT, advice about college applications, and the opportunity to work on group projects, like creating a robot or a radio program. Students also make group visits to colleges.

Participants, foster parents, and family members where possible have to agree to the program’s requirements. Families must develop a long-term plan for students in cooperation with First Star. Law students from Rutgers volunteer with the program to ensure that students are getting the right services and supports at home. First Star staff say that the students are better behaved both at school and at home when they are in the program. 

The Pascale Sykes Foundation is spending a little less than $10,000 per child per year. Other donors include Give Something Back, led by Robert Carr. It offers participants four-year-college scholarships to several institutions in New Jersey, as long as they maintain a B average and are of good character.

Frances Sykes says her foundation “is always focused on family as the primary determinant of the physical and emotional wellbeing of a child.” Its insistence on involving foster parents, not just kids, has influenced other First Star branches to do more to incorporate the family in their interventions.

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