At the end of tenth grade, Barbara Bell was about to get kicked out of school. She was getting D’s and F’s on her report card and was lashing out at her teachers and friends.
But unlike other teenagers struggling with school, Bell didn’t have her own home to go to at the end of the day. She was living in foster care.
“I always thought I was dedicated to school, so it was hard when things didn’t go my way,” said Bell, now 23. “I would get so mad at my grades that I would go off on my teachers.”
At that point, Bell was on the road to joining the 50 percent of foster kids who don’t graduate from high school – amounting to approximately 200,000 drop outs, according to a 2010 study from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall. (By comparison, the national drop out rate is 4.1 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.) Of those foster kids who do graduate from high school, only 3 percent will go on to receive college degrees, according to Casey Family Programs.
Bell entered foster care when she was only one year old.
“I was always praying for my mom to get off drugs, praying to make the grandmother I never met proud,” Bell said. “And I didn’t really have any communication with my [foster mom] so I didn’t really feel support.”
Kids in foster care are more likely to have mental health problems than other students, according to Mark Courtney, a researcher at the University of Chicago.
"We have to recognize that there is going to be a lot remediation and they may not finish at 18, but give them the time to do so,” Courtney said.
The summer after her sophomore year, Bell checked into a hospital to find ways to cope with her destructive feelings. The experience gave her the motivation she needed to tread a different educational path.
“I didn’t want to be there,” she said. “I was crying all the time. But I looked at it like what didn’t kill me could only make me stronger.”
Armed with a new perspective, she “did a whole u-turn in school.” She enrolled in a new high school, went to the college and career center when other students were at lunch, enrolled in a local Independent Living Skills Program for foster youth, and spent more time on homework.
By the end of eleventh grade she was on the honor roll. She graduated from high school in 2006 and in May she received a Bachelor’s of Arts in Criminal Justice, with a minor in Africana Studies, from San Francisco State University. The accomplishment made her the first in her family to receive both a high school diploma and a college degree.
“Not everyone has a successful story, so what happens to those youth who have no support?” asked Bell, who is now an advocate working with foster kids.
Instability is a major reason why students have trouble doing well in school, Bell says. Because foster kids are often placed in many different homes while in care, they change schools frequently.
“Some people go to 40 different schools over 17 years, so there is no stability, and on top of that you’re dealing with so many different emotions,” said Bell. “I don’t think there is enough support.”
To address this startling reality, Sen. Al Franken has proposed an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requiring school districts to help foster kids stay in their home schools when they are moved into foster families in other school districts.
The amendment is currently waiting for Senate approval.
In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections Act, which provides federal funding to all states that extend foster care to age 21. Since then, 80 bills relating to this legislation have been enacted throughout the states.
But broader support is desperately needed, according to Elizabeth Tarango, the program manager of Alameda County Foster Youth Services in Bell’s hometown of Oakland, Calif.
“A lot of the students who get referred to us have 30 credits, which is really low,” said Tarango. Students need an average of 200 credits to graduate.
“If somebody is not there to really stay on top of it, they really get lost.”
Alameda county now employs five education mentors who are assigned to kids in foster care. They help students review their transcripts, ensure they don’t repeat classes they may have taken at a previous school, and provide tutoring.
Foster kids are also placed in special education at three times the rate of other students, according to a 2011 study from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. They are often recommended for this education track because of behavioral problems and low expectations of academic success.
“Sometimes child welfare officials see special education as a service they should ask for,” said Dr. Courtney. “But it can end up labeling students as someone who needs special education when they may just be coping with their situation. And that is not a disability.”
Yet child welfare officials have found that the use of certain programs can improve the educational outcomes of foster youth. In October, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and Fostering Media Connections released a report recommending ways to better support the education of foster kids. In the fall of this year, the California Child Welfare Co-Investment Partnership reported that the number of students with a GPA over 3.0 jumped from 8 percent to 22 percent after they received a full year of collaborative services and support.
Bell agrees that programs can change the trajectory of a student’s education while in foster care, but, in the end, the greatest source of empowerment comes from other foster kids.
“We have to have the youth voice and have the youth who have been successful to help foster youth believe in themselves.”
Ryann Blackshere is a multimedia journalist with Fostering Media Connections a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to improving the well-being of children in foster care.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.