greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu / Creative Commons

It's important to go to college, we get it.

Kids in foster care get it, too. Almost all of them say they want to go to college. But only one in five actually does. Of those students who do make it on campus, less than 9% graduate.

What's going on here?

Applying for college is a hard process for any student. It involves formulating a (possibly very expensive) multi-year plan to get a degree and plan your entire future. These choices are being made by 16-year-old high school juniors before their brains have even had a chance to fully develop.

The reality is, most kids in foster care are coming from low-income communities. It's hard enough as it is for kids in those communities to make it to college. Even high-achieving kids at low-income schools have a hard time navigating the steps to get to college. 
There are tons of great resources about college access on the Internet, even for kids in care. But this information often doesn't make it to the kids who need it. 

Where the system breaks down in sending kids in foster care to college

  • First things first. To make it to college, you have to be able to graduate from high school. For kids in foster care, who may change schools frequently and deal with inconsistent curriculum, this is hard enough.  

When kids bring trauma to school with them

Nov 20, 2014
Krissy Venosdale / Flickr

There’s a reason we talk about trauma so much at State of Opportunity: It has a huge impact on kids.

When we say “trauma," we’re referring to a child’s emotional response to an absolutely terrible event, like witnessing violence or living with an alcoholic parent – two examples of traumatic experiences described in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (and ACES test) we reported on earlier this year.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

The goal for children in foster care is to find them permanent homes. If they can’t live with their birth parents, the next best thing might be adoption. But the road to adoption can be bumpy, and for some children their dreams of a permanent family are dashed before the papers are even signed. 

"I refuse to sink"

Nineteen year old Candice Sponaas is a blonde tomboy with a 1000-watt smile. 

Like a lot of teenagers, Sponaas is really into tattoos. She designed the one on her forearm. It’s a big, floral infinity symbol with an anchor on one end and a rose on the other. In between are the words “I refuse to sink.” As she starts to talk about her broken adoption, I notice her glance down at the tattoo on her arm. It seems to give her strength just looking at it. 

Sponaas moved in with her soon-to-be adoptive family just before she turned 18.  They planned to adopt her in a year or two. But ten months in, things were not going well – especially between Sponaas and the mom of the house. So Sponaas moved out.

"And then we just stopped talking," says Sponaas. "And then she said I think it’s better if we just don’t try to force everything here. I wish you nothing but happiness, but that’s all that there is. So, that adoption is never going to happen."

publik16 / flickr

In 1978, a group of teenagers in Wayne County beat, stabbed, and killed another young person named Dennis Rhodes in order to steal his bike. 

One of those young people, Jeffrey Dunbar, was tried and sentenced as an adult. Dunbar was sentenced to life without parole. 

This decision is only one year younger than I am. It seems utterly unremarkable in its treatment of a juvenile as an adult.

flickr/_chrisuk

Two years ago, Michigan raised taxes on the working poor. It was reported plenty at the time; it should be no surprise. 

If you want to be technical about it, the state didn't so much raise taxes on the working poor. It reduced the tax credits that went to the working poor. The Michigan League for Public Policy estimates that prior to 2011, the average low-income family in Michigan received a tax refund of $446. In 2012, that refund dropped to $138. The MLPP says the change means that about 15,000 fewer families were lifted out of poverty as a result of the credits. 

None of this is news. The change happened two years ago. 

Why bring it up now? Because right now Michigan leaders are considering another tax increase that will have a disproportionate impact on the state's working poor.

user: Bart Everson / flickr

The type of education a child in Michigan gets depends in large part on where he or she lives. That's because Michigan is under no legal obligation to provide an "equitable" or "adequate" education for all its citizens. The only thing Michigan is legally required to do in terms of schools is provide a "free" education. And we all know that free does not necessarily equal quality. 

Here is what our state constitution says about education: 

Sec. 2. The Legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils without discrimination as to religion, creed, race, color or national origin. 

So, we've promised our children a free education, but is it equitable and adequate? That's the question we posed in our documentary, The Education Gap. (If you haven't heard it, click on the link and take a listen. You may be surprised at how much of a difference your zip code makes in terms of educational opportunities.)

The equitable and adequate question is also at the heart of a recent lawsuit against the Highland Park school district. As my colleague, Kate Wells, reported last week, the ACLU sued the district and the state of Michigan, saying students were not taught basic literacy skills. Here's an excerpt:

Flickr user Schlüsselbein2007

$29,583. 

That is the average amount owed by each student who graduated college in Michigan last year. The number comes from a report released today by the Institute for College Access & Success's Project on Student Debt. The report reveals that 63% of college graduates in Michigan last year had at least some debt when they graduated. Michigan ranked eighth in the nation for the average size of that debt. 

And the institutions where students graduated with the highest amount of debt may not be the ones you'd guess. 

Patrick M / flickr

The Department of Human Services Office in rural Van Buren County is pretty indistinct. There's a waiting room with a toddler crying. Through double doors and down the hall there is a sea of cubicles. Rows and rows of them where case workers take calls. It’s a big operation, some would say a big bureaucracy that exists, at least in part, to do right by kids like Durwin.

He introduces himself like this, "I'm just a foster youth."

The U.S. Army / Flickr

Many folks who tuned into Jennifer Guerra’s arresting audio documentary on foster care, "Finding Home," wondered how some of the young adults featured, people like Jasmine Uqdah, were able to overcome so much adversity in their young lives. Their success is so statistically unlikely, that numerically and practically it is almost impossible. So what explains it?

Is it grit?

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Head Start is one of the most important, and confusing, anti-poverty programs in existence. It serves nearly a million kids a year, at a cost of about $8.5 billion dollars this year to the federal government. It's been in place for a half century. And we have no solid idea if it really works. 

Which is not to say that there isn't research on Head Start. There's a pile of research on Head Start. But the findings of various studies are contradictory. And the biggest, most-widely cited study of Head Start's effectiveness is routinely misinterpreted

One of the problems with assessing Head Start is that Head Start isn't one thing. It's run as a grant program. That means the government sends a check to a local group to operate its own Head Start classrooms. There are rules for how those classrooms should be run – lots of rules – but each Head Start grantee does have flexibility in choosing a curriculum, offering certain services, and in hiring its own teachers (actually, Head Start parents get a big voice in choosing teachers, but that's another thing altogether). 

That creates a challenge for researchers, because there can be wide variation between different Head Start centers around the country. And some Head Start centers seem to provide much bigger benefits to kids than others. 

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