Foster kids need more educational help now

New York City has fully funded its Fair Futures program, but must still include tutoring in addition to coaching

Tanapong Sungkaew / EyeEm

There are more than 8,000 children in foster care in New York City and, if recent trends continue, no more than 2,000 of them will graduate high school. 

A recently completed study by the City’s Center for Innovation Through Data Intelligence (CIDI) found that in 2019, pre-COVID-19, only 25% of children in foster care were graduating high school within four years. And there’s every reason to believe that lost school time during COVID only made things worse. The graduation rate for students in city public schools overall is about 81%.

Stop and think about that for a moment. It’s 2022 and we’re talking about one in four youth graduating. Not from college, but from high school.

Yes, these data are yet another painful reminder of our failure to provide generations of foster children with the basic educational skills they need to succeed in life. We cannot look away any longer. Having worked at an agency that created a first of its kind charter school for system-involved children in the South Bronx and developed a college support program for youth in care attending CUNY schools, I have seen first-hand and fully appreciate the often uneasy intersect of child welfare and education.

We know that these young people have the capacity to excel academically. The failure to date has nothing to do with the kids and everything to do with a system that has been unwilling or unable to educate them.

There is a ray of hope on the horizon – with Mayor Eric Adams as an early champion and advocate, the city has fully funded a new initiative called Fair Futures. 

I was part of the group that developed and promoted Fair Futures, which integrated the tutoring and coaching models of two nonprofit child welfare organizations. A critical component of this innovative program, which the city has now adopted, is to provide one-on-one coaching to young people in foster care until age 26 – the first city in the United States to do so.

As the program is now being implemented, however, it appears that the emphasis on coaching may have pushed academic tutoring into a back seat. The concept of coaching has rightfully gained momentum in the child welfare community of late, but coaching must be joined with tutoring to have the impact we need.

For a variety of appropriate reasons, the profiles of the coaches currently being hired suggests that while they may be equipped to positively influence a young person’s disposition toward school, they are unlikely to have the experience and training necessary to improve the high school graduation or college persistence rates in any significant way. 

Simply put, a coach without academic credentials is not going to be able to help a student pass geometry or chemistry.  Without tutoring – without the education they need – the paths toward the future for these young people will become more and more narrow and coaches will have fewer and fewer options to coach them on. If we end up coaching a generation of kids on how to apply for minimum wage jobs and subsidized housing, we will not have achieved our goals.

Now is the time to address this. Just as the Administration for Children’s Services is requiring that contract agencies provide young people in care a coach, so too should it require that they offer these young people access to one-on-one tutoring from a trained tutor. One would think that part of a coach’s role would be to persuade a young person of the benefits of one-on-one tutoring and how working with a trained tutor would be in their best interests.

This will not require additional funding – the program is designed and funded to provide both tutoring and coaching. It’s what those of us who advanced the program anticipated and we assume it’s what Mayor Adams expected when he championed it.

We spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to put a roof over a child’s head – we cannot continue to fail them when it comes to providing them with an education. Without an education, everything else we do will amount to nothing more than temporary relief. Education is the key to a successful future and Fair Futures could make that key available to every child.

If implemented as originally intended, Fair Futures will mean thousands more foster children graduating high school – many going on to college. It will mean thousands more young people with a path toward a successful future, able to provide for themselves and their families, less likely to become involved in other government systems or dependent on other government services.

If there is one silver lining to the CIDI study, it is that perhaps this stark and compelling reminder of what we’ve allowed to happen to generations of kids will mobilize city resources around change. It was heartening to see news reports of the Department of Education creating a central office to support foster children, but even as DOE develops its new initiatives, we should stay focused on the fact that an immediate solution is already at hand – and kids need help now. 

We know what works. We have a program that is fully funded. The question is: will it be implemented in a way that seizes the opportunity to make a real difference in the educational journey of the children in our care – or will we squander that opportunity through a failure to focus on what we know is most important.

How many studies do we have to see, how many generations of children do we have to lose before we say “enough?”

Bill Baccaglini is former CEO and president of The New York Foundling.

NEXT STORY: Understanding the nuances of mental health are key for COVID-19 recovery