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The Miseducation Of Foster Youth When group home teachers expect the worst

By Ja'Nelle E.

When I went to high school in the group home, our curriculum consisted of watching movies such as "The Elephant Man" and coloring or drawing. We rarely did work that was truly educational. I grew up in San Diego, California. When I was in the foster care system during the 1990s, most kids in a group home had to go to a special school for group home kids. Now, some kids still go to these schools-almost all kids living at residential treatment centers do-but more kids are able to attend regular public high schools. When I was 13, I met with a counselor at a public high school. The counselor told me that I needed certain classes to graduate. In order to be accepted to most four year colleges, I needed three years of math, including algebra and geometry, four years of English, some history and certain sciences and arts.

Given Meaningless Work

I was still going through emotional problems, worrying about where I was going to be living the next day, so I didn't really take these things seriously. Going to college seemed a long way away, and it was not a priority. However, I did listen and remember those requirements, just in case I decided to go to college one day. Shortly after that I was removed from my grandmother's home and placed in a group home. The school setting was simple: everyone in my unit went to school together. This meant 12-year-olds were in the same classes as 17-year-olds, and most of us completed the same assignments. The teacher frequently gave us lectures that were very interesting, but didn't have anything to do with the subjects my former counselor told me I would need to graduate or go to college. We learned about being in the army and how to put on a gas mask. The teacher demonstrated the quickest way to put on a gas mask, and then several of my classmates tried it. I asked myself over and over where this fit in with any of the classes I really needed to graduate or go to college. It didn't fit.

How About a Lecture on College?

In some ways, I didn't really care. Even though I knew what classes I needed to get into college, I didn't know if I wanted to go to college, how to get prepared for college, or how to pay for it if I did go. Heck, I was pregnant with my first child. College was the last thing on my mind. And no one in foster care talked to me about those things. But I think that instead of lecturing us about the military, that teacher should have given us a lecture on college. He knew about college, because he was sending his daughter there. It seems that he assumed none of us foster care kids would make it to college, and the military would be something easy for us to do. I met with a counselor from the school district a few more times. I was very curious as to whether I was on track or not, so I told the counselor about what I was learning in the group home school. I told him that the counselor at my previous public high school said I needed certain classes to graduate and go to college, but I did not think I was getting those classes at the group home school. I was very interested in learning Spanish, so I asked the counselor how I could take that class. He told me that the teacher at my group home school did not know Spanish, so I could not learn it. The same went for algebra. I needed algebra for college, and the teacher knew a little about it, but since he could not give me one-on-one time, I would not get to take the class. My social worker told me I was going to be in foster care until I "emancipated" out of the system, and that I would not be attending public school again. Her comment crushed my whole world because I thought I would never have a regular education. Not to mention that I would never attend a school dance, take school pictures or learn how to socialize with other students in a real school setting.

'Boy, You Sure Are Smart!'

Moving from group home to group home, I found myself in a continuous circle of teachers that taught the residents meaningless subjects and only seemed to care about having the residents graduate instead of teaching them something. I felt like the system was holding me down and I would never get anywhere. No one I complained to seemed to care. When I entered a new group home school, I was usually tested to see what level I was at. When I scored high, I got comments like, "Boy, you sure are smart!" It wasn't a compliment. It was more like they were genuinely surprised. Was growing up in the system any reason for me to be less smart than someone who grew up at home? I didn't think so, but the reactions I received from teachers and other adults made me think that I shouldn't be that smart. They seemed to just accept it as a given that kids in foster care aren't interested in education, won't excel in school, and will be content doodling all day. Instead of encouraging me to go to college and take my time to finish school the right way, they made me take subjects below my level. Then they would "disguise" the class and put it on my transcript.

Cheated out of an Education

When it was time for me to take Geometry, there was no one to teach me. It was not my fault, so the teacher had me complete consumer mathematics. When I received an "A" in consumer mathematics, she reported the grade as an "A" in geometry. She thought she was doing me a favor, but really she was cheating me out of actual learning. Later on, when I found myself back in a public school, that made it harder for me to catch up with the other kids. The group home I was at for pregnant and parenting teens was the worst education-wise. There was a day when I was reading a literature book that was at the 11th grade level. (I was in 11th grade at the time). Students kept going up to the teacher's desk for help, and I guess she got frustrated, because soon she announced that we would all be working out of a 6th grade book because it would be easier for her. If she put us all at the level of the lowest person, she could put us in a circle and we could all work together. This teacher apparently didn't think about how that could hinder my learning and hold me back from reaching my potential. It was all about her comfort.

Role Model and Inspiration

At the time, a lot of these fallacies in the group home schools did not bother me. Then, at my last group home, I met one of the most influential people in my life. She was my role model and everything I wanted to be: smart, pretty, independent, and she was even a social worker, like I thought of being. She talked to me, encouraged me, and pushed me. "What do you want to do, Ja'Nelle?" she would ask me. When I told her I had dreams of being a lawyer or social worker, she told me to go ahead because I would be great. We talked about college, and she volunteered to help me with anything I needed help with. I talked to her frequently about the schools I had been in. She told me that in spite of all of those problems, not to let anything hold me back. Those words made all the difference. If one person was encouraging me, I knew that I was smart enough to go places with my life, and that the problems were not with me, but with the system. The way she talked to me and treated me and expected greatness from me gave me a firm push to put my goals into action. After talking with her, I decided that I didn't want to be one thing. I wanted to be many, and I could be them all.

Determined to Succeed

Meeting this role model made me realize just how little educational encouragement I had received in the system. Of all of the group home schools I was in, I never heard a teacher even mention the words "college" or "the future" in class. Plenty of teachers encouraged us to get GEDs, but not to go out and do great things. But with the encouragement of my role model and my own determination, I eventually rose above my past education experiences and succeeded at my goal. After leaving foster care, I went back to a public high school. At first I was still in a special track for kids labeled "emotionally disabled," but I eventually got into regular classes and graduated with a 3.5 GPA. I believe that I excelled educationally despite my background because I was always looking out for myself. I asked questions. When someone inside the system told me something, I thought critically about it instead of being a robot and saying, "OK." I was determined. When I had a child, I really got moving because it wasn't just about me anymore. Foster youth need more caring adults that won't just be nice to them, but who will also push them. Teachers need to encourage foster youth not just to get by in school, but to go to college and reach their full potential.

"Reprinted with permission from Foster Care Youth United, Copyright 200X by Youth Communication/New York Center, Inc. ("

May 14, 2008 By FosterClub