Tag Archives: foster care

“I Wanted Their Education to Be as Strong as it Could Be”: Q&A With Antoneia (Toni) Jackson, Foster Parent In Washington, D.C.

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. Continue reading

A New Way to Classify — and Learn From — “Alternative” Schools

Nearly every district in the country uses the term “alternative” to describe a broad swath of schools, including those that serve students who are pregnant and parenting, students who are new arrivals to the United States, adult learners, youth in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, or students who have previously dropped out. In short, it’s a way to classify schools that serve students who have needs that are not met or addressed by typical K-12 learning environments.

These and many other “alternative” schools meet student needs that are not going away. In the wake of COVID-19, in fact, these needs are more acute than ever. But because these schools are poorly understood by many sector leaders, their distinct strengths are at risk of going unnoticed and untapped. Rather than remaining the quirky outliers, these schools should become models for modern ways of learning, especially when flexible, hybrid, part-time, and distance learning programs are more relevant than ever. 

The reality is that within the big bucket of “alternative schools,” programs differ widely: some may be quasi-virtual or residential programs while others offer evening classes or deliver two-generation support for parents and young children. Ultimately, the big label of “alternative” obscures more than it illuminates. I would like to offer a more sophisticated definition and challenge the idea that these schools are fungible alternatives to conventional education opportunities. 

I have identified three defining features of alternative schools based on my research and experience, including many visits to schools across the country:

  1. They align to an otherwise unmet need for services. For the most part, the alternative to many of these schools is not attending school at all. 
  2. They are intentionally designed to meet a set of specific student needs. This may be a complex constellation of needs, but the designers of the school’s programs and services are guided by the needs, wants, and constraints of the young people that they serve. As a result, they may look much different operationally from a traditional school.
  3. They set mission-aligned learning and outcome objectives (e.g., improved parenting skills, increased school attendance, or developmental milestones of social and emotional learning) and may adjust the thresholds or timelines for traditional metrics of school success (for example, using a six-year graduation rate rather than a four-year measurement).

I believe that schools meeting all these criteria can safely be called “alternative,” but even within that category, I’ve discovered further useful distinctions. Below I offer an overview of three common types of programs, each with its own real-world illustration. 

Schools that offer intensive in-person services

Although many charter models tout their unique in-person school culture and the intangible learning experiences that they create in their buildings, few programs offer the kind of in-person service delivery that a school like Monument Academy, a five-day-a-week boarding school in Washington DC, delivers. With a weekday boarding program for nearly 100 youth, many of whom are in formal foster care or informal kinship care, the physical aspect of the program model is foundational.

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School Choice Isn’t That Simple for Youth in Foster Care

In theory, students in foster care, who may relocate frequently, would be prime candidates to benefit from school choice, with its specialized school options and flexibility.

But navigating choice processes, and even just identifying the right adult to weigh in on a school decision, can be a fraught process for youth in foster care. When a student is placed in foster care, the decision-making rights to their education may rest with one of many possible adults: a parent, another family member, a court-appointed volunteer, or a social worker. Each of these adults have different skills and capacity to dedicate to a student in their care. Some foster parents may have significant time to research school options and help a student understand which school may be the best fit, whereas a social worker has to care for dozens of students simultaneously.

These students deserve access to the full range of school choice options that their peers have, even if they frequently relocate — they shouldn’t have to lurch from assigned school to assigned school. (Federal law requires students in foster care to be eligible to remain in their original school even if placed under care in another district. Sadly, a recent U.S. Government and Accountability Office report found that state agencies are often unable to pay the cost of transporting students to their school of origin.)

As many communities consider expanding school choice options, it is vital for education agencies and systems of care to be mindful of the specific challenges students in foster care experience. My colleague Hailly Korman and I are currently working on a new project focused on the experiences of foster youth in communities with relatively high levels of school choice, exploring the following questions: Continue reading

Transformative Tech for Youth in Transition

Millions of students every year experience homelessness, a foster care placement, an incarceration, or an unmet mental or physical health need. And while the organizations and individuals that serve these youth act with the best intentions, existing technologies and practices result in fragmentation and poor communication among the adults working with a given young person. Different agencies may only be aware of particular aspects of a student’s life: one agency may know about a student’s health history while another knows about their past foster care placements.

There is hope, however: a number of districts and states have begun to innovate and design technological solutions to resolve the issue of agency fragmentation.

DC Foster Kids App home page

In Washington, D.C., the Child and Family Services Agency has developed the DC Foster Kids App, which grants foster parents and provider agencies access

to important information about their youth in care through a web-based application. The application includes medical contact information, important dates such as court hearings, and licensing and training requirements for the foster parent. Easy access to information allows the student and the adults in their lives to remain aware of milestones and data to best serve youth.
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Students Served by Multiple Systems of Care Deserve Better

At any given point in time, about 5 million kids are served in one or more of our nation’s child service agencies. These young people are living through traumatic and disruptive experiences ranging from homelessness to foster care placement to incarceration.

As I wrote in this piece nearly two years ago, these children are navigating a fragmented world of adults, programs, and agencies, often operating as the only central point among all of the services.

In our latest publication, Continuity Counts, Hailly Korman and I offer our recommendations for addressing this fragmentation and improving cross-agency coordination. However, our project differs significantly from most other policy papers because we approached our research using human-centered design. This means that we started by talking to the very people who are impacted by agency fragmentation: the children and youth served by these agencies. We also talked to the direct-care providers working in various agencies. The goal of these interviews was to better understand the needs, wants, and constraints of both the youth and the care providers, in order to build a set of recommendations that addresses the challenges they face.

Through our human-centered design approach, we identified two key levers for change: continuity of people and continuity of information. By identifying a single adult to operate like a child’s “chief of staff,” we can mitigate the need for a child to interact with a myriad of adults. By improving data collection, sharing, and storage, we can reduce the burdens on youth and their caregivers that result from missing or incorrect information.

The silos that exist among agencies did not appear overnight and will not disappear quickly. However, just because agencies have always operated in relative isolation from one another does not mean it must always be like this. Eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, the fragmentation that exists among schools, government agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations is possible with deliberate and concerted effort over a long period of time. And doing so is necessary if we ever hope to provide youth with a cohesive, streamlined system of support throughout their education trajectories.

Read our full report here or our op-ed in The 74 here.