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When Family Fails, Schools Can Do More to Care for Youth

Four ways to help at-risk students thrive in the classroom. Third in a series.

By Pieta Woolley 11 Sep 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Pieta Woolley reports on solutions to breaking the link between foster care and youth homelessness for Tyee Solutions Society.

This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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Some experts think that new approaches to the classroom could mean fewer teens and young adults on the streets. Student photo via Shutterstock.

[Editor's note: Tyee Solutions Society's Pieta Woolley has been writing about the reasons why many graduates of the provincial foster care and child protection system become homeless as young adults. As 620,000 B.C. children and teens return to school, she looks at why the "launch" from adolescence to financially-independent adulthood is proving so hard for so many -- not just the most vulnerable -- and some ideas about how to help. Today, four esteemed educators offer school-based solutions to keep vulnerable youth engaged and en route to graduation. Find the series so far here.]

Dropping out is widespread. One in five B.C. teens won't graduate high school by the time they reach 19.

Still more disturbing, that ratio is upended among teens in B.C.'s foster care system: less than half of kids who are wards of B.C. graduate by 19.

Educators don't need The Fraser Institute to tell them poverty is a top indicator of which students flounder and fail. Though controversial, the right-leaning think-tank's annual school rankings highlight the divide very clearly.

Vancouver offers 18 public secondary schools. Nine are on the east side, and nine are on the west side. In 2012, among schools in the lower-income east side, six reported more than one-quarter of their senior students were flunking. On the higher-income west side, that level of failure was recorded at only two schools.

Rather than wait for yet-to-be-invented new social programs to eradicate family dysfunction and poverty, four leading educators argue that schools could be doing much more on their own to improve the outlook for their most vulnerable students.

Big idea: Train teachers to understand and neutralize the effects of poverty.

Eric Jensen is a neuroscientist and former middle-school teacher whose "brain-based learning" empire includes workshops, DVDs, and 26 book titles, including Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do about It.

He grew up middle class. Later, as a teacher, he was mystified by the classroom behaviours he observed in some of his students. He discovered that poverty was a common contributor to their chronic lateness, absenteeism, acting-out, impatience, rudeness, inappropriate emotional reactions and general lack of empathy. Poverty's consequences, in other words, included an undermined ability to get much out of the classroom.

As he studied neuroscience and started to apply brain research to teaching, he focused on how the stress of poverty actually changes the brain. He discovered that it impacts memory, impulse regulation, language and cognitive skills, as well as emotional development.

"What I'm interested in is what allows kids from poverty to make it," he said.

Poverty, he acknowledges, is something teachers have no control over. But with one in five American students growing up in very challenged homes, he believes that learning to teach despite its effects is an essential skill.

The secret isn't in bearing down on academics, he insists, but on relationships. Children and youth become open to learning, he argues, when they have strong, reliable relationships with their teachers, friendships with other students, and good social status. Growing up in poverty, however, many kids will be missing such learned emotional tools as patience, forgiveness, gratitude and humility. Without first better socializing students who live with poverty, Jensen argues, anything academic will fail.

He suggests teachers do that by role-modelling respect constantly -- even when students are acting out.

Acknowledge students no matter what time they arrive, and teach them the basic social skills like making eye contact, smiling, shaking hands, and saying please and thank you. Those will lay the foundation for more complex social skills such as problem-solving, cooperation and group work, which do not come naturally to kids living with poverty. Teachers should also thank students, Jensen suggests, and be ready to celebrate effort -- not just achievement.

Big idea: Switch to semesters; let counsellors counsel.

For some bright students who are crashing in mainstream schools, one model classroom boasts a tremendous success rate. But it's exclusive; potential students need their social worker or probation officer to refer them there.

The Vancouver School Board's Pinnacle Program is an alternative school offering Grades 11 and 12 in a learn-at-your-own-pace format. It meets on the third floor of an aging social services building near the city's Downtown Eastside Victory Square.

The school's 20 students take a course or two at a time, and set their own hours. Lunch and fresh fruit are always available. Most students who attend not only graduate, but go on to post-secondary school. Grads in the class of 2013 went on to study criminology, hair styling, trades and other courses.

While Pinnacle is one successful model for offering intense support to vulnerable kids -- especially kids who are in the foster care system -- youth and family worker at the school Kim Brand believes small changes in mainstream public schools could offer many more struggling teens a greater chance of success, too.*

Currently, she points out, most high-school age students in B.C. take eight courses that last all the school year.

"This schedule puts vulnerable teens right behind the eight ball," Brand explains. Miss a few days or weeks due to family problems or illness, and you're hooped.

Switch to a semester system, she argues, with only four courses at a time, and instability becomes a lot more manageable. Catching up in four courses, she notes, is much more achievable than scrambling after eight.

Half of what Pinnacle does differently, Brand says, has nothing to do with academics. Instead, it's helping kids with the practical aspects of making the transition to independent young adulthood. Teachers help the teens find and apply for post-secondary school. They walk them through applying for grants and bursaries. They also stay in touch with the teens for months or years afterwards.

That kind of intense support may be impractical in large public high schools, Brand acknowledges. But school counsellors -- experts in helping students negotiate their transition out of school -- are too-often bogged down in creating and changing student course schedules. Brand suggests that school counsellors should be freed from that duty to do more actual counselling work, "with kids who really need that nurturing and support, to get kids through school and keep them from dropping out."

Indeed, Brand believes that some support should continue even after course-work is completed. "It's not good enough to just graduate them and send them out the door," she insists. "At 19, they still need contact, so we continue to feed them and hold their hand. We do whatever we can to keep them holding on."

Big idea: Admit that schools are already social-service hubs, and support them in that.

Many educators resist the idea that schools should take on additional social services. And certainly, Martin Brokenleg says, they're not currently funded to play that role. But in reality, he asserts, parents often trust their local school in a way they don't trust other public agencies or churches.

Brokenleg is a Victoria-based psychologist and vice president of Reclaiming Youth International, an aboriginal agency that trains educators and other adults to work with vulnerable youth. He's also a member of the American plains Lakota Indian Nation, a theologian and co-author of Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future.

For many B.C. students, family challenges bleed into the classroom. One-third of kids showing up for kindergarten in Vancouver aren't ready to learn, according to the Human Early Learning Partnership, a UBC research network that studies the impact of young children's experiences. Social, language or other challenges impair the start of their school career. Family and neighbourhood dysfunction is at the root of the problem, Brokenleg acknowledges, but schools can offer an antidote.

"Here, social isolation is endemic in nuclear families, with no extended family support," Brokenleg noted. "A kid growing up in that environment won't have the social experiences of a kid growing up in a coastal village, where they have that interaction across generations."

Some schools in Europe facing concentrations of high-needs families have instituted a so-called "educator model" -- separating classroom teaching from student tracking and mentoring duties. "Educateurs", each serving no more than two classrooms, take responsibility for observing kids' academic and social behaviour, keeping in touch with parents, and connecting them with support services when needed, Brokenleg explained.

The model ensures that kids are noticed -- feeling invisible at school is one of the complaints most heard, particularly from former foster kids -- and takes some pressure off classroom teachers who can then focus more attention on academics.

Big idea: Give promising foster kids a taste of university-level learning.

In the U.S., just three in 100 former foster kids ever graduate from a post-secondary school. In turn, educational failure is a major reason why so many former foster kids find themselves homeless, Kathleen Reardon argues.

Reardon is a business management professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles, and author of Childhood Denied: Ending the Nightmare of Child Abuse and Neglect. In 2007, as she sat writing a book charting dysfunction in the U.S. foster care system, an idea sparked.

Universities, she recalls realizing about the setting where she's spent most of her life, are really very good at helping lonely teenagers become functional adults. They're staffed by professors with every conceivable health and social expertise, and attended by thousands of students who actively seek out pre-professional volunteer experiences to fill out their resumes.

Why not harness those skills to help foster kids?

Reardon contacted First Star, a Washington D.C.-based American lobby group that advocates for better treatment for foster children and youth. The agency picked up the idea and with Reardon's involvement began the "Academies program." Each summer, groups of 30 promising 14-year-olds are invited to live away from their foster and group homes on a university campus.

Although the success of the program has yet to be tested, the concept is simple. Students stay for a month each summer, bond with each other and a team of university-based mentors, and get an intense introduction to the importance of education, through speakers, workshops, and simple lessons, such as hands-on healthy cooking.

Later, when the students return home, volunteers from the university will visit each child monthly throughout the following school year. The hope is, they'll pursue degrees, and thus inoculate themselves against cycles of poverty and homelessness.

The approach isn't cheap. Each group costs about $250,000 a year to support. But it's an amount Reardon says she has no trouble raising. So far, First Star has partnered with four universities to start "academies" at the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Rhode Island, Washington D.C.'s George Washington University and the University of Connecticut. In Illinois, Northwestern University has just announced that it, too, wants to host foster kids.

Within the next couple of years, Reardon plans to open the first "365 Academy," where teens will live year-round on campus -- essentially being fostered by the university community, and living together. A big group home for intellectuals.

The program's first cohort of students will graduate high school next year, giving Reardon a chance to gauge its success by the number of university acceptance letters its graduates receive.

Tomorrow: In a time of few good first jobs, one sociologist says we must invest up-front for stable starts into adulthood -- and that means putting shelter first.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Kim Brand as the principal of Pinnacle. She is the youth and family worker.  [Tyee]

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