How Oregon’s Education System Can Better Support Foster Children

Adam Sweet can’t remember exactly how many times he moved growing up as a foster child, but he thinks it was at least twenty.

Usually those moves meant new schools, or at least a new chance to avoid school. Adam says he only went to high school for one year as a teenager, and nobody seemed to notice. 

Adam’s journey through the education system turned out OK — he eventually made it to Portland State University as an adult and bootstrapped a successful business

But Adam is the exception to the rule.

Studies have shown that foster kids lose an average of four to six months of academic progress every time they move. And because a quarter of Oregon foster kids move at least three times, these students often fall off track before they’ve even made it to high school.

That’s why we wanted to dig into this question from reader Dayle Westhora:

“As a teacher, I have many students in foster care. How can the education system better support students in the foster care system?” 

‘I spend more of my time as a social worker’

Dayle is a middle-school teacher in the Vancouver School District, and she’s learned to recognize the signs that a student is dealing with instability at home. 

“You don’t know it when they first come to you. You have no idea they’re in foster care,” she says. “You learn it through their behavior.”

Dayle has worked with students who show a lack of motivation in class, and others who lash out with anger or violence. 

With these students, Dayle says her role becomes less about teaching earth science and more about building trust and rapport. 

“There are days when I spend more of my time as a social worker,” she says. “These students need to know there’s at least one person in their life who they can have a positive relationship with.”

Dayle works at a school with multiple on-site counselors, translators, and other support specialists, and she’s taken professional development courses to help her engage with students experiencing challenges at home. 

But she’s also seen new teachers arrive with heaps of “technical” teaching expertise — but little idea how to support foster children and other students with unstable home lives.  

It got her wondering: How can we do this better?

Finding the cracks in our education system

Not all foster kids are forced to move as often as Adam Sweet, but the turnover statistics are remarkably high. 

In Oregon, about 12 percent of foster children spend time with six or more families — and two-thirds of them move at least once. 

That often means kids are bouncing between schools, depriving them of their social circles and the relationships they’ve built with teachers and other adults.

“There are four cornerstones in the life of a young person in foster care: the foster [family], the familial and community supports, the service providers, and the education system,” said Nick Gallo, executive director of Youth Progress. “All four of those have to work together to ensure a young person in foster care is able to grow.”

Districts like Portland Public Schools are beginning to do more to support foster children and other vulnerable youth, both through alternative education programs and through support systems at traditional high schools that help keep kids from slipping through the cracks.

Last year, Roosevelt High School’s then-principal Filip Hristic told us about the school’s “freshman success teams” and their work to help first-year students navigate graduation requirements and other challenges.

Efforts like these are designed to help students stay on track as they move from grade to grade, but it doesn’t address how to support kids moving from school to school — or how to keep that from happening.

A new law, but without much enforcement

In 2015, President Obama signed a new federal law, the Every Child Succeeds Act, that requires school districts to work with child welfare agencies to keep foster children in stable school situations.

But the law never provided much accountability, and the Trump administration then rolled back many of the regulations that did exist, making it virtually unenforceable. 

That left it up to states and local governments to decide if and how to fulfill the promise of education stability for foster youth — and the results have been mixed, including here in Oregon.   

One of the challenges is transportation: even if everyone agrees that a foster child should stay in the same school, their foster parent might not have the time or the money to get them there. 

Oregon does offer mileage reimbursements for foster parents to help lower the financial burden, but the state’s child welfare data doesn’t show how many parents take advantage of it — or whether it’s helping keep more kids in the same school. 

So, what else can schools and teachers do to support foster parents? Here’s some additional reading we recommend if you’re looking to go deep: