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Why Don’t Foster Care Students Graduate High School?

Updated: Dec 5, 2023


Fifty percent of foster children do not graduate high school and too few go on to learn a vocation or earn an advanced degree. Although they are just as smart and capable as non-foster kids, the status of “ward of the court” often limits them to a sub-standard education.

How could it be otherwise?

Being removed from their families and placed in the care of strangers is a traumatic life event

that handicaps the learning process. For example, young – often scared and confused – minds

searching for answers to complex questions such as “What’s happening to me?”, “Where is my brother?” or “Why can’t I live with my mommy?” tend not to focus on conjugating verbs,

memorizing the times tables or completing homework.

An immature mind in emotional chaos does not deem these educational assignments a priority

when it’s in “survival mode.”

Additionally, a foster child’s attendance, grades or graduation may not be a priority for some

foster parents, case workers or other child welfare professionals. Tanisha Cunningham describes her poor educational experience growing up in a group home on page 52 of our book, A Foster Care Manifesto: Defining the Alumni Movement:

“Living in a group home, I was never monitored while I was going to school. No one ever asked me how was school? Did I do my homework? Where was my report card? I had to discipline myself to attend school. I remember playing hooky my whole 11th year without anyone knowing. The staff never checked on me and the school officials never reported my absence because to them being a foster child … it was expected.”

Furthermore, the lack of stability resulting from moving about in foster care – which usually

means changing schools, teachers, lesson plans and classmates – is a sure-fire way to derail

learning for even the brightest and most motivated students.

Living in multiple placements often means attending different schools, which destabilizes the

educational process, thereby reducing academic performance while increasing the potential to

drop out of school.

These are not conditions conducive to a quality educational experience. Indeed, they are but a

few of the more obvious reasons why so many foster kids fail to realize their potential, which is

why so many wards of the court suffer adjustment problems upon emancipation and lead lesser adult lives.

Elizabeth Sutherland describes her emancipation experience on page 123 of our book, Growing Up in the Care of Strangers: The Experiences, Insights and Recommendations of Eleven Former Foster Kids:

“I graduated Andrews High School June 4th, 1998; turned 18 June 9th and moved into a one-bedroom apartment the next day. I had barely more than the clothes on my back when I exited placement: no furniture, no bed, no job, no friends and no adult to guide me. Depressed and disconnected, I fell in with the wrong crowd, who introduced me to alcohol and drugs. I self-medicated for a while, as I tried to fit into society. I was so scared, so confused, so alone, so traumatized by my past and so intimidated by the future. I just wanted to belong. Oh, how I needed to feel a part of something…anything.”

Being a ward of the court, of course, often means that a foster child does not benefit from being part of a family, such as emotional and financial support or a place to come home to over the holidays.

This lack of what Dr. John Seita calls “family privilege” makes college especially difficult for

some foster kids. How does an orphan get loans, pay tuition, buy books and put a roof over his head or food in her belly? Where does a college student with no biological family eat

Thanksgiving dinner or spend Christmas vacation?

These are the kinds of questions we must answer to produce more high school, vocational and

college graduates and improve the quality of their educational experience.

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Denis Mercier
Denis Mercier
20 Οκτ 2023

I am all for having a Foster Youth Care person in every school system. Some sensitive and understanding guide to a better life and more mature decisions. And, as Vivian Dorsett mentions, someone to provide a bit of stability in a life otherwise marked by chaos.

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Did you know this information written in this blog is provided by professionals and educators with degree's who are also foster care alumni? There are also organizations such as National Foster Care Institute (NFCI) and the National Youth in Transition Data base (NYTD). And YES we need more research, but if you view this data it can inform you how states are doing as it pertains to foster care. A perfect chance to get involved with your community where you live to advocate for change on a state level.

Due to a childhood of pain sometimes dropping out and running away feels like an option, but it should not be. Stability in care, records being expedited to schools, school counselors…

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