Thousands of New York City students living in foster care returned to classrooms this month with first-ever support from their local department of education — the long-delayed and much-anticipated launch of a dedicated office first announced in December 2021.
The office for students in foster care is now fully staffed with nine employees serving the needs of the city’s public school students growing up in the child welfare system — kids who have to focus on classwork amid ever-shifting caregivers and the emotional trauma from rocky childhoods and family separation.
“Students in foster care are some of our most vulnerable young people,” spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education Jenna Lyle wrote in an emailed statement to The Imprint. “Our fully staffed foster care team is working diligently to ensure they have the critical supports they need to succeed in school and put our young people on a path to lifelong success.”
The new office includes five support coordinators and one manager, as well as staff working with homeless students. The office also includes a data manager, interagency coordinator and training and policy associate.
Erika Palmer, supervising attorney at the nonprofit Advocates For Children, praised the creation of such a “helpful resource,” noting its significance given that the city may soon institute hiring freezes and make across-the-board budget cuts to its agencies.
“I’m very excited that they’re there,” Palmer said. “The office has done a lot of work introducing themselves to schools and to superintendents so that they know they exist, and know that they’re there to reach out and provide support.”
Improving educational outcomes for foster youth has received increased attention in recent years. On Tuesday, elected officials, advocates and foster youth are expected to gather at a press conference to celebrate what they describe as “landmark achievements for New York City’s youth impacted by foster care.”
The event is being promoted by the Fair Futures campaign, a local nonprofit coalition of more than 100 organizations and foundations. The campaign helped secure $30.7 million in city funding to provide coaches and tutors to more than 4,000 New Yorkers from sixth graders to 26-year-olds who have backgrounds in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
At the event, supporters plan to highlight new data that shows eighth graders in the city’s foster care system graduating to academically selective high schools at the same level as their peers who have not spent time in the system — for “the first time in history.” A recent evaluation by Chicago-based think tank Chapin Hall gave more measured support, calling it a well-developed but still emerging model. Long-term success “hinges on model components on paper that are faithfully replicated in practice.”
Former foster youth Dareth Ogle, 27, spent most of her life in the child welfare system since entering in 1998, and her story illustrates how vital academic support can be. She recalls attending five schools by the sixth grade and feeling she “just existed,” with no adult in her life interested enough in her education and goals beyond making sure she got to class.
One particularly caring foster mother took an interest, and her advocacy bumped Ogle out of special education into classes for “gifted” students. But that level of concern was rare, she said. Beyond academics, Ogle always wanted to study dance as a child, but soon realized that wouldn’t be likely unless a foster parent was willing to take on the additional cost of that extracurricular activity. And besides, she said, no one seemed to notice how she buried herself in magazines showcasing ballerinas and figure skaters. That particular dream remained unfulfilled.
Ogle said she benefited from a personal coach provided by her foster care agency through the Fair Futures program, who worked with her from undergrad through graduate school. She is now a paralegal and hopes other foster youth will receive such support through the new office for students in foster care.
“Social workers cannot do it all, and you cannot always rely on foster parents to be invested in the child’s education,” she said. “Now, they have somebody to advocate for that young person and make sure that person is performing at the peak of their academic potential.”
As New York City’s roughly 7,000 students in foster care enter their new academic term, they face ongoing and widely acknowledged academic challenges during childhoods typically marred by upheaval — from difficulty attending home schools to spotty attendance that leads to poor grades.
Last year, the city’s Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence released a study based on confidential administrative data that revealed the foster youth schooling crisis to be more concerning than previously known. In perhaps the best local examination of the issue to date, 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. That stands in stark contrast to their peers with no foster care background, three-fourths of whom graduated on schedule.
At the time the study was released, Brooklyn City Council Member Rita Joseph sounded the alarm, stating: “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.”
In 2018, a city task force reported that more than 25% of students in foster care repeated a grade, compared to only 6% of other New York City students.
Education and child welfare advocates like Palmer, including the Legal Aid Society and the city’s larger foster care agencies such as Children’s Aid Society and Good Shepherd Services, have been pushing for the creation of this foster-youth-serving office since 2018.
That year, the city council’s Interagency Foster Care Task force recommended “a team of borough-based foster care content experts responsible for field support and case consultation.” The experts would focus on improving school placements, transportation and absences.
Goals of the Department of Education’s new Students in Foster Care team include mentoring and tutoring support, addressing chronic absenteeism and providing training to social workers and school counselors on how to work with students who’ve experienced trauma.
“For children who were removed from their home and are now in an educational setting, dealing with that trauma, and trying to focus in school is extremely difficult,” said Melanie Hartzog, president of The New York Foundling. The Foundling-supported charter school in the Bronx, Mott Haven Academy, is unique in its approach. It is believed to be the first and only school in the country created specifically for children in foster care, with specially trained staff and goals centered on students’ emotional needs as well as their academics.
Hartzog is hoping for further support from the department of education’s new division, to extend Mott Haven’s staff training model to other schools in the city.
There are many critical needs to be met.
Palmer expects reliable transportation to be one of the most pressing challenges over the next school year — another issue she said should be at the top of the list for the new foster-youth-serving office.
Though students removed from their homes and taken into foster care have the right to remain in their original schools, making that happen can be tricky for foster parents and agencies instructed to maintain attendance at their “schools of origin.”
With so many foster youth relying on public transportation to get to school, “it can take literally weeks, if not more than a month, to get a new school bus route,” Palmer said.
Going forward, the new office is expected to help sort out these and other challenges for students in foster care.
“We just hope that they continue to grow and expand their influence,” Palmer said, “and that more people within the Department of Education and in schools know about them and know to turn to them with questions.”
Correction: The article originally stated that Dareth Ogle was provided a personal coach before the launch of the Fair Futures program, and that this occurred while she was in grade school. It has been corrected to reflect that she received the coach through Fair Futures beginning when she was an undergrad.
Disclosure: The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which has funded Fair Futures and the graduation rates study mentioned in this story is one of the funders of Fostering Media Connections, The Imprint’s parent nonprofit company, as is Fair Futures funder the Redlich Horwitz Foundation. Per our editorial independence policy, the organizations had no editorial role in our news coverage.