The state took children from their parents — then failed to give them a ‘real’ education
DETROIT (NBC) - Michigan is catastrophically failing to provide many of the most vulnerable children in its care with a quality education, delaying some teenagers’ graduation by years or leaving them so frustrated that they drop out of school, according to foster youth, their advocates and educators who’ve tried to help them.
NBC News spoke with 10 current or former Michigan foster youth who collectively spent time in more than a dozen residential facilities in recent years, either because social workers couldn’t find a family to take them or because the state said they needed treatment for mental health or substance misuse issues.
All of them attended classes for months or years with other young residents of those facilities.
All of them were assigned schoolwork and completed it, they said.
Some thought they’d received quality instruction from caring teachers. Others recalled being largely parked in front of computers or handed packets of worksheets.
But all of them learned a difficult lesson when they moved out of these facilities and tried to transfer to a public school: The classes they took in the state-funded, state-licensed institutions didn’t necessarily count toward graduation.
“They said I had no credits so I had to start over,” said Kayla Goshay, 23, who learned at 18 that the classes she took during two years in a home for girls weren’t reflected on her transcript. She suspected the courses weren’t great — girls ages 12 to 17 were all taking the same online classes at the same time, she said — but she was told she was working toward a diploma.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I was hurt and irritated because I thought I was doing something and I really wasn’t doing anything.”
Children in foster care face some of the nation’s steepest obstacles to graduation, with only about 54% earning a diploma or GED certificate by age 19, compared to about 86% of public high school students overall.
Foster youth placed in institutions — a group that’s disproportionately Black and Latino — face even longer odds, experts say, since they’re more likely to have unmet social and emotional needs, and they’re less likely to have foster parents to speak up for them.
Their problems are compounded in states like Michigan, where the child welfare system and education officials pay little attention to the instruction facilities provide and have failed to ensure that facilities comply with laws requiring the timely transfer of academic records, educators and foster care advocates say.
“These are children who haven’t done anything to deserve what’s happened to them,” said state Rep. Stephanie A. Young, a Democrat from Detroit who serves on the Legislature’s child welfare and foster care task forces. “Instead of really help prepare them, really help equip them, we’re giving them the short end of the stick with inadequate education.”
Michigan’s child welfare and education agencies say they have no way to comprehensively or systematically oversee the quality of education provided in facilities. The contracts the state has with 58 institutions require them to provide children with “appropriate educational services” but leave the definition of “appropriate” up to the companies or organizations that run them. That means the facilities approach education in different ways, with some sending students to nearby public schools and others operating on-campus schools that are overseen by a local district or run as a charter school or private academy. The private schools are largely beyond the reach of government oversight.
And many of the programs — both public and private — are clearly not meeting students’ needs.
“I felt destroyed. I felt like everything I did was for nothing,” said Christian Randle, 17, who has spent the past year trying to get credit for the ninth and 10th grade classes he took in a mix of public and private schools while living in residential facilities.
Randle has become so frustrated seeing his hard work “swept away” that he decided last month to give up on a diploma and is now pursuing a GED certificate, he said. He’s part of a group of youth in Michigan who are pushing the state to address the issue.
“They take us away from our parents for things that they’re not doing, but then y’all not doing the things you’re supposed to do,” he said of state officials. “Who’s going to take us from you?”
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