Bridging the Gap: Helping transform foster children’s educational futures

Bridging the Gap: Helping transform foster children’s educational futures

March 29, 2016

“Johnny” is 5 years old. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his well-educated parents. His mother is a book editor and his father works in finance. 

Johnny is struggling to read. He attends school in District 3, where 76 percent of the students are proficient in reading. The school has an active parent fundraising effort, which provides for teaching assistants in kindergarten as well as a reading intervention program for first- and second-grade students. His parents have hired a private reading specialist for individual tutoring in a multi-sensory language approach. With this additional support, Johnny has made significant strides by the end of second grade and is now at grade level. He is on track for graduating high school on time, then eventually college and a successful career. 

“Alex” is also 5 years old and struggling to read. 

He lives in the South Bronx with his grandmother (who is also his foster parent). He attends District 7 in the South Bronx. The school is significantly underperforming: 3 percent of the students are proficient in reading, 29 percent are in special education and 46 percent are English Language learners. Alex’s school offers tutoring help for struggling readers and after-school enrichment, but teachers have difficulty meeting the intense needs of students like Alex because they are helping so many students and families meet basic needs. His grandmother cannot afford private remedial reading instruction. As a result, Alex has not learned to read fluently by third grade. He struggles in school and becomes discouraged. He starts to act out in class and is referred for special education services. His family finds the application process for middle school to be overwhelming; Alex is enrolled in a low-performing middle school, where he fails to progress. He cuts classes and develops shame around his inability to learn. Alex has never learned to read – so he can’t read to learn. By the time he enters high school, the chance to turn his situation around has passed.

Because of race, class and zip code, the futures of Johnny and Alex look profoundly different. 

The gap in knowledge, achievement, education, career choices and income between kids like Johnny and Alex will be incomparable – and that gap is only getting wider. Children with the lowest reading scores account for 33 percent of all students, yet they account for 63 percent of all children who do not graduate from high school, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For children involved in the foster care system, the statistics are even more devastating. Nearly half of the nation's 500,000 kids in foster care leave high school without a diploma, and only about 3 percent ever obtain a college degree, according to a recent report by the Stuart Foundation. A recent report by the New York City Department of Education also found “major deficiencies” in their system for tracking students receiving special education services and calls into question the reliability of current data.

Educational experts agree that being able to read by the third grade is a monumental, developmentally significant milestone and a predictor of future academic success. We are glad to see that in the fall, the city Department of Education plans to implement an encouraging and important reading specialist program in targeted schools. I am also very pleased that the New York City Administration for Children’s Services has recognized the importance of early literacy and is partnering with agencies like ours to identify solutions.

It will take these kinds of efforts and more to help ensure “Alex” has access to the kinds of support that will help him reach his highest potential. 

Logic suggests that children from New York City’s 10 poorest community districts, coming from families frequently confronting the direst circumstances, would get the most talented teachers, best facilities and greatest outlay of extra dollars to enhance programming. Yet basic literacy eludes these children, even when our city and our courts decide we need to take them into protective care because life at home has become too dangerous.

As a lawyer for these children, a former commissioner overseeing our public child welfare and juvenile justice system, and former family court judge, I have seen these smart, curious, eager brains denied their opportunity to flourish. We can’t seem to understand that Alex has the same potential to go to college and have a successful career as Johnny. 

At JCCA, we are seeking to help transform the futures of thousands of children who have been abused or neglected, many of whom are in foster care and have been denied adequate educational resources. JCCA’s diverse programs provide an important range of services, from education and socialization to internships, mentoring and therapeutic arts.

The majority of our foster children have demonstrable deficits in basic literacy. Fifty-five percent receive special education services. 

There are many reasons for this discrepancy. Some children have experienced chronic neglect or abuse. Many have cognitive and emotional delays. The disruptive nature of (often multiple) foster homes can cause frequent school changes and absenteeism. In addition, the impact of devastating trauma over time interferes with healthy brain development and makes concentrating harder.

With the support of a generous grant from The New York Community Trust, JCCA is about to launch an early literacy pilot program which, we believe, is the first intensive multisensory reading program for foster children in New York City. The goal of the program is to help 6 to 8 year-old children learn to focus and read by the third grade.

JCCA’s education experts have decades of experience helping children overcome their serious disadvantages. The new program will work closely with the child’s biological and foster parents to help support literacy development in the home. For example, we are going to work with foster and biological parents, who themselves may lack confidence as readers, to either enhance their reading abilities or encourage them to tell their own stories to their children from the time they are infants. Studies have shown that listening to the spoken word or story, regardless of whether it is read or simply remembered by the reader, has a profound effect on a child’s development. 

Careful analysis of the outcomes and effectiveness of the program will be shared with other leaders in the field, and we hope it becomes a model for children throughout our agency as well as other agencies in the city. We also hope our model will help inform the New York City Department of Education as it plans its reading specialist program. 

Lastly, we urge the Department of Education to create a uniform policy that would implement the most successful in-school reading programs citywide so that race, class and zip code no longer factor so heavily into the success of New York City’s “Alexes” and “Johnnys.”

Ronald E. Richter is the chief executive officer of JCCA. JCCA has been helping vulnerable abused and neglected children and families throughout greater New York for 194 years. JCCA also works with disadvantaged Jewish immigrants and with Jewish children and their families in support of Jewish continuity. JCCA offers safety, stability and lifesaving support to help our clients transform their lives. In everything we do, we are guided by the Jewish mandate of tikkun olam – the responsibility of every person to make the world a better place.

Ronald E. Richter