FosterClub Young Leader Kayla VanDyke Testifies to Senate HELP Committee

18-year-old Kayla VanDyke has had to leave a lot behind over the 14 years she’s spent in foster care and homeless. She entered foster care at age four because of her mother’s drug activity. She was reunited with her biological mother for a time before things got “out of control” and the family found themselves homeless. Kayla and her siblings returned to foster care when Kayla was age 13. Overall, Kayla has lived in seven different foster care placements. Last week, she shared her personal story in the hope of putting a face on the issues homeless and foster youth often face in education.

“I have been homeless. I have experienced living in a shelter. And I have been separated from my siblings along the way,” she told the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, as they examined education reform on April 29th. “But I am pleased to tell you that ... I will be graduating [from high school] in four weeks with a 3.7 GPA.”

Senators and others in the room broke into applause at an achievement gained despite VanDyke's having attended 10 different schools and missing out on fourth grade entirely.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) Invited high school senior Kayla VanDyke to testify before the HELP Committee regarding special populations and education reform. VanDyke’s role at the hearing was to illustrate the obstacles facing foster youth in the education system, an issue Franken has been working to improve in the upcoming education reauthorization bill.

“Through the force of her determination and innate ability, Kayla has overcome tremendous adversity,” said Sen. Franken. “Drawing from her own life experience, she can provide us with valuable guidance on education reform."

About 800,000 young people nationwide experience foster care annually. It is not unusual for young people in foster care to experience frequent moves, often resulting in school changes. VanDyke said she felt uncomfortable asking new foster parents to drive her back to her old school, even if it was just minutes away. “It goes back to emotional stability, you’re in a new home, you don’t know these people they’ve already made accommodations for you, you feel like a burden so when you go out of your way to ask for accommodation you feel like even more of a burden,” she explained. “Especially when you’re used to moving a lot, you want to make a good impression, you don’t want to seem like a burden.”

VanDyke made several recommendations on behalf of her peers who are homeless and in foster care: • Like homeless youth, foster youth should be able to stay in their old school after they move to a new school district when it’s in their best interest. “Transportation must be provided in order for this to be possible. As a foster youth who was never quite sure about where I would be moved next, I didn’t want to inconvenience my new family by asking for rides to my old school, even though it was minutes away,” says VanDyke. “It never really occurred to me that it would even be an option.”

• Assistance should be provided to homeless and foster youth to cover gaps in their education that result from unavoidable school moves. “When I changed schools, sometimes I completely missed one half of the year’s lessons and had to relearn what I had already covered at the other school. The fact that I have skipped major steps in my linear education continues to impact me to this day,” explained VanDyke. “When a young person must move, special efforts should be made to ensure that their records are transferred, that they don’t lose school credits, and that they receive the help they need to bridge any gaps that might occur due to the move.”

• Dedicated liaisons or advocates should be provided for all foster and homeless youth. “These critical adults must have the training, time and capacity to serve vulnerable children who are caught up in the kind of circumstances I was in.” She continued, “At various points in my childhood, supportive adults in the education and child welfare systems dedicated time and energy to help me succeed. “

• Young people must be allowed immediate enrollment and records must be transferred promptly. VanDyke indicated that this is one area in which she was served well, as she was allowed to re-enter school even though her records were missing. “Federal law should ensure that all homeless and foster youth are allowed to attend school without delay. It should ensure that their records are transferred promptly so that they can receive credit for their previous work, and so that gaps in their education are not missed.”

Minutes after the hearing concluded, Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa committed to including language in the forthcoming education reauthorization bill. It will now contain text that aims to ensure foster youth can stay in the same school and provide money to school districts to cover the additional cost of transporting them, Harkin said. “Let me just say you are a well-spoken young woman,” Harkin told VanDyke. “As one of my young daughters might say, ‘You’re kinda awesome.’” Kayla’s educational goals include going to a four year college for a degree in psychology, then continuing on to graduate school to receive a master’s degree in alternative therapy. She will attend Hamline University in Minnesota in the Fall. Check out Kayla in the press: Minnesota Post  Minnesota Star Tribune  Minnesota Public Radio