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Minnesota has an opportunity to help foster care kids

Hoang Murphy

I entered foster care when I was 8 years old. I was in my first week of school at Lincoln Center Elementary, and when I say first week, I do not mean the first week of the school year. I literally mean my first week of school, ever. I had been asking to go to school as soon as I discovered it was a thing that other kids did and after months of pestering, it was finally my time. It was third grade and I was in my favorite outfit, my forest green sweatpants and matching shirt. It was my favorite outfit and my only outfit, which I wore for the entire week.

I was much more excited about something else I had discovered about school: lunch. I got a meal every day. Every day. This was insane. I had never seen so much food at once. I ate everything, and everything got my seal of approval. 5/5 stars. I think it was at about this point that the adults at the school started to notice something was, well … off.

Maybe it was because my teacher caught me stashing food from the garbage in my pockets or because my shirt didn’t cover much of my bruised, emaciated stomach. On that Friday of my first week, someone took my brother and me out of class and to an emergency shelter. We would see our father a week later and then every other weekend as we moved into our first foster home. Then two years later, not at all; he decided to give up parental rights as part of an agreement to avoid any jail time. We were adopted soon after I turned 11.

According to my former guardian, Child Protective Services, this was the end of my story. I was no longer under their care and, as a result, they have no further record of me.

What they don't know

After a child is adopted, states and corresponding agencies are no longer held accountable for that child, and no data is recorded for former foster care recipients. The state does not know if they made a good choice with my adoption. They do not know that I graduated high school, that I went to college and became a teacher. They also do not know that, as with many foster care alumni, my brother’s outcomes were far less positive.

We now have an opportunity to correct these failings by making good on the potential of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA empowers states to improve protections for foster care recipients. For example, children who enter foster care can stay in their original school, or may enroll in their new resident district. ESSA also requires districts to uniformly report graduation data for those who are in foster care at the time of their graduation.

No mention of foster care

However, based on Minnesota’s draft ESSA plan, which is currently being finalized, you would not know this. For there is no mention of foster care. Not even once. In well over 100 pages.

This is an egregious oversight, but one that the state still has time to correct. The Minnesota Department of Education should see ESSA as an opportunity to improve the outcomes for its most vulnerable students, not just make basic compliance.

We have a chance to see, for the first time, how each child previously under the state’s care is doing, and whether or not we did enough to help them. This is crucial, given what we know about children who stay in the system.

We know that a child who enters foster care is typically 6 years old and will stay in foster care for two years, with the length of stay being less for the very young and increasing with age.

We know that the current outcomes for youth who emancipate from foster care at 18 are abysmal. These children are twice as likely as other students to be absent from school and three times as likely to be expelled. Only 50 percent will receive a high school diploma. Only 10 percent will attend some college and only 3 percent will go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

To make matters worse, the outcomes for the 50 percent of foster care recipients who return to their original homes, who are placed with relatives, and/or who are adopted is unknown. There are not any reliable or readily available data, as no government agency records cohort data after children “exit” foster care.

ESSA could include such data

While ESSA is an improvement over its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) can make it even more impactful by counting any student who was in foster care in demographic data, no matter their length of stay in protective services. These data would give us a chance to measure how children fared if they left foster care, and how many students have matriculated through the foster care system. The current data reporting requirements do not do enough to measure the impact of foster care on educational outcomes. Consistent data across the state would allow child welfare agencies and school districts to provide better support.

I understand that better data collection alone will not solve the challenges that students in foster care face, but without data, we cannot even see how big of a problem this is or whether we are making progress. These data would give agencies, nonprofits, and families the information needed to make informed decisions for children currently and formerly in foster care.

Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius might be the best poised of any state official to understand the need for these changes. Her personal story of experiencing homelessness and subsequent moving from home to home and school to school means that she understands the challenges foster kids face all too well.

ESSA presents a rare opportunity for Cassellius and MDE to empower schools to better support the children most in need of their advocacy. Public comments can be made on Minnesota's draft plan through today (Thursday, Aug. 31).

Hoang Murphy, an education advocate, is a former foster care youth.

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