Just one in four foster youth graduate from high school, new study finds.
For years, elected leaders and advocates for foster children in New York City have pleaded for more attention and resources from schools. Through public demonstrations, urgently worded reports and class-action lawsuits, they have sought to combat the consequences of abrupt school changes, high rates of suspensions and lack of timely special education services. At an April rally on the steps of City Hall, council members called on the city’s education department to simply deliver kids by bus to their home schools.
Now, local officials have quietly revealed just how overlooked this group of students has been.
An unprecedented new government study based on confidential administrative data shows the schooling crisis may be deeper than most in the child welfare field had previously known: In 2019, only one in four New York City public school students who spent time in foster care during their high school years graduated on time. In contrast, roughly three-fourths of all city students received their diplomas after 12th grade that same year.
“The data is clear that as a city, we are currently failing to ensure that students in foster care get treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve,” Brooklyn City Council Member Rita Joseph said in an email to The Imprint.
The graduation rate — calculated by a research arm of the New York City mayor’s office and released last month — is significantly lower than what city and state officials have previously reported. It is also far lower than what scholars who specialize in foster youth education nationwide say is more typically found: graduation rates between 40% and 70%.
Methods for counting students “in foster care” vary widely, since some children spend days or weeks in the child welfare system and some spend years.
The new study by the Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence counted 11,383 students in high school between 2005 and 2019 who spent at least one week in foster care. Fewer than 25% of those New York City public school students graduated in four, five or even six years of high school.
The study’s lead author, Maryanne Schretzman, said in an email that the study was a first-of-its-kind, due to its large sample size. Prior studies often involve snapshots of students in foster care during the study period, she said. Her research team counted any high school student who was in the system over a 15-year period.
Schretzman said the city’s low graduation rates underscored the need to focus on improving school attendance and math and English scores, and to reduce moves between new schools and foster homes. Those measures, she added, will help “lift up and positively shape the lives of foster care students.”
Former New York City foster youth Charell Star, who went to school while in foster care in the 1990s, said she wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings. And although it represents a good starting point, she added: “We need a lot of additional resources to help support these youth not only in their education but in their lives as well.”
Star said officials need to take a deeper look into why foster youth are failing to graduate on time, noting that the trauma they’ve experienced combined with lives often marked by upheaval, make academic success a difficult struggle.
“I went to six different schools in six years. I bounced around a ton,” said Star, who is now a TV host, producer and board member for several child welfare nonprofits. “And there wasn’t anyone making sure I was going to school.”
NYC officials pledge to do better
There were more than 7,400 public school students who experienced a foster care placement in New York City last school year, nearly one-third high schoolers. The Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence — which conducts research to identify public service needs — notes how vital it is that children raised in government care graduate. High school education is “a milestone on the path to adulthood,” the report authors state, and “critical” to achieving stable adult lives. The center’s study was produced with funding support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
On average, researchers noted, college graduates earn 75% more than what high school graduates earn, and without a high school diploma these young people can face a lifetime of economic hardship.
A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education did not respond directly to the graduation rate findings, but stated in an email: “We continue to work toward removing any barriers to success in the lives of our most vulnerable students, providing them with nurturing, supportive school environments where they can connect with one another, communicate with a caring adult, and access the resources they need to grow and learn.”
And Jess Dannhauser, commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), noted that system improvements are forthcoming. This month, the Fair Futures initiative, which provides tutors, mentors and coaches to current and former foster youth up to age 26, received a significant funding boost in the final city budget. Foster care agencies will now receive $30 million per year to fund the program, up from $20 million in the prior year. Fair Futures “coaches” who assist foster youth navigating school, employment and housing have so far served nearly 3,000 young people in New York City.
“As we continue our work to improve high school graduation and educational outcomes for ACS-involved youth, we will continue to look at how we can support students in a more targeted way, and we will make sure the voices of the young people are reflected in all we do, as they help us to shape the initiatives that support them,” Dannhauser said.
The center’s report, he added, “highlights that we need to do better for our young people and we are on our way.”
The research relied on records from three city agencies, and showed the overwhelming majority of students in foster care are children of color. Nearly fifty-five percent of the more than 11,000 students studied were identified as Black, and 36% as Latino.
In December, former Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new division of the education department dedicated to serving these foster youth.
In an email, a department spokesperson stated that nine employees are expected to be hired for the new division by fall.
But lawyers who have supported foster youth in special education and school disciplinary hearings say the months-long delay in launching the new unit is an example of the lack of attention that contributes to the one-in-four graduation rates.
“To see these kinds of outcomes — it’s maddening,” said Chantal Hinds, a policy fellow researching education equity for foster youth at the think tank Next100. “ACS removed them from their home, and this is what they have to look forward to?”
Hinds said child welfare professionals tell themselves “there are different programs trying to make things better,” but that’s not enough.
“There has to be a reckoning with these numbers and with the truth. We have to reveal and unmask what’s really going on,” she said, citing the disruptions she’s seen youth experience with foster care agency staff turnover and school changes.
The new education report found a correlation between the number and types of placements while in foster care, and graduating on time. Students who were moved between three to six placements yearly had an 11% chance of graduating within four years, while those who stayed in one foster home over two years had a nearly 34% chance. Children who spent most of high school in group facilities were found to graduate only 5% of the time.
Among the study’s provocative findings is the 10% four-year graduation rate for students briefly taken into foster care — six to 12 months – which was lower than for youth who spent more time in care. By contrast, 25% of those who spent eight or more years in the child welfare system graduated within four years.
Mike Zink, who managed tutoring programs for one of the city’s largest foster care agencies, said that at most agencies, historically, there’s been little long-term support for teens in care for just a short time.
“What happened to that young person?” said Zink, who now runs his own tutoring agency for current and former foster youth called At the Table. “What happened is they probably didn’t graduate from high school.”
Further inquiry needed
Scholars who reviewed the New York City graduation study at The Imprint’s request noted several possible shortcomings: Mainly, it does not include high school equivalency credentials such as a GED, nor did it appear to account for students moving out of the city before graduation, whose records may not have been obtainable.
The University of Chicago scholar Mark Courtney, who has led several large-scale studies of former foster youth and the courses of their lives, praised the study as “an improvement on some earlier efforts to track high school graduation rates.” But he called it “irresponsible” not to include GED numbers in such a study.
Prior research, Courtney stated in an email, makes clear that many foster youth are behind academically before they enter high school. Thus five- and six-year graduation rates are typically more realistic measures of their success — without placing unreasonable expectations on children who may have faced adversity prior to, and within, the child welfare system.
Schretzman, the report’s author, agreed. At The Imprint’s request, she provided some additional findings that were not published in the study, showing that high school equivalency rates improve the outcome picture to a limited extent: Almost 4% of the 2015 student cohort studied completed a GED after four years, amounting to roughly 29% of students with foster care backgrounds receiving either a GED or a high school diploma. After six years, slightly more than 5% obtained a GED, which is still well below other states, educational scholars said.
Is there a particular failure in New York City schools? Education experts offered a variety of views.
One of the early supporters of Fair Futures and the former head of the nonprofit New York Foundling, Bill Baccaglini, said it should be mandated that all youth in foster care in middle school be offered one-on-one tutoring. He added that he was “embarrassed” by the graduation rates, and that a child welfare leader who wasn’t might be “in the wrong line of work.”
Nathanael Okpych, a University of Connecticut social work researcher and author of “Climbing a Broken Ladder: Contributors of College Success for Youth in Foster Care,” said more could be learned if the city calculated graduation rates for other student groups who face setbacks, such as homeless youth, students with disabilities, and those receiving cash assistance.
“That can help tease apart how much of the gap between foster youth and all students is specifically related to being in foster care versus other disadvantaged circumstances,” Okpych said.
Schretzman agreed, stating that these are topics her center “hopes to pursue in future research.” The goal, she said, “is to work with ACS and the education department on interventions to help improve outcomes for foster youth.”
The center’s report, while quietly rolled out in a city known for its high-powered communications teams, has not gone unnoticed among children’s advocates.
Laura Daly, director for the education advocacy project at the nonprofit firm Lawyers for Children, is calling on the Department of Education “to take all necessary steps to support youth in care attending school.” In an email, Daly stated that “improving graduation rates starts at kindergarten, at a minimum.”
Council Member Joseph asked a Department of Education (DOE) official in a recent public hearing how the city office would grade their own performance for foster youth.
“You know educators love to give themselves rubrics. How would the DOE rank themselves in terms of handling foster care?” she said. “What’s the rubric, one to four?”
“What I would say is we are approaching the standard,” responded Jawana Johnson, the department’s chief of school culture, climate and well-being. “But there is definitely more that can be done.”
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation provides funding to The Imprint’s parent organization, Fostering Media Connections. The foundation has no involvement in our editorial operations, including this article, per our editorial independence policy.