Antoneia (Toni) Jackson has been a foster parent for five kids in Washington, DC, and has navigated between charter schools, traditional district schools, and different daycare options for her foster and adopted children.
How has she navigated school choice options with children in foster care? We recently published a first-of-its-kind report on the obstacles that youth in foster care and their families experience in accessing school choice options, so we spoke with Toni about her experiences and lessons.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How did you choose the school your children are currently enrolled in?
I knew I didn’t know everything. I wanted to make sure I had all the help I needed in getting information for my kids’ education. I wanted their education to be as strong as it could be, so I talked with other parents at the daycare where my kids attended. I admired the other parents: we come from similar social, economic, and educational backgrounds, and we just connected. For example, I found that other parents were parents of adopted children. Everyone was in search of information. I was able to get a variety of perspectives from a diverse population of folks from people whose opinions I valued.
What other resources or guidance helped you make school choice decisions?
I was Googling daily — that’s what I had to rely on. I felt depleted and ignorant that I didn’t really know where to get real, sound information. D.C. government had a school fair, but it didn’t seem helpful to get the feel or idea of what a school really had to offer. It was more so an open forum where everyone is going to put on their best show. I didn’t even know about the forum until another parent from daycare told me. Even then, I didn’t know what to look for or ask about. It’s like going to a job fair and seeing who shines the best. Every parent in D.C. should know the top things to look for in a school. Even the lowest ranking schools would say they’re a top school.
The Foster and Adoptive Parent Advocacy Center (FAPAC) has an open peer group to converse about all things foster care and adoptive care from the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). Even if I didn’t know any of them, I knew they were coming from the same basis. We wanted similar things for our children: putting them into the best care educationally. This group was the greatest resource. We wanted to get more answers from the government, but the government (CFSA) is more focused on taking kids from a bad situation and placing them in a safe environment. Anything in between isn’t their focus.
What did you struggle with when choosing a school?
I had many questions: What is the environment going to be like? Would the school provide the level of education I’m looking for? Would it have the standard I expect for any of my children? Would staff be aware that my children are in foster care and be accepting of them? Would others have a preconceived notion of them?
I was concerned about how I, as a foster parent, and my children, would be perceived. Also being an African American woman, I thought my kids would be perceived as less than. I questioned if we would be accepted as who we are, especially when I was looking at private schools. Would schools want a child that came from foster care? Would there be concerns with behavior and presentation of how they’d act? I had to oversell that they were just as great as any child. When I would tell people that my children were from foster care, they would reply: “They don’t look like they’re from foster care.”
If you could design a better system for foster parents, what would you include?
One thing is special acceptance into schools [even after the enrollment deadlines]. There are some cases where you’ll get a child any time of the day that needs to be placed in a school. To provide stability, there should be exceptions to the rule for children in foster care so they don’t fall further behind. When I was looking for daycares, it was very difficult to find a center to accept my children. I was able to get the sympathy of the daycare director. I literally got on my knees and asked her to accept my twins. It was past the enrollment deadline and the daycare was full, but people will make exceptions if they like you.
There are a lot of strains on foster care families. Parents should have the opportunity to put their child in the school that would work best for the child [and that is] convenient for the parents.
Read our report about youth in foster care and school choice here.