Children enter foster care for a variety of reasons.
The Alabama Department of Education understands entering foster care is a radical change that can affect the emotional health of a child. This month, officials sent out a notice advising school districts to work with their local welfare agencies to keep children at the school they were attending at the time they entered foster care to minimize disruption in their lives.
“These new requirements promote greater stability for children placed in foster care, as they no longer are required to change schools,” Athens City Schools Federal Programs Director Beth Patton wrote in a message to The News Courier. “In the past, when children were placed in foster care they would have to attend the school for which the foster family was zoned. Now, a child in foster care may remain in his or her school of origin unless it is determined that the school of origin is not in the child's best interest.”
To illustrate, Patton said a child who was attending an Athens City School was placed in foster care with a family living in Limestone County. That child would be able to continue going to the same school and would not be required to go to a Limestone County School unless the agencies in charge of the child's welfare decided it would be in their best interest to switch.
“I see this as a huge benefit,” Patton said. “To be able to stay with friends and adults you know and trust can be very comforting.”
This recommendation is listed in the new federal education guidelines, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. It provides school districts and child welfare agencies with resources to keep a child's education continuing undisturbed even though their home situation might have changed.
This includes provisions to help families get the foster child to their school with fuel stipends and other transportation aids.
The plan also details what should be done in case a foster child cannot possibly stay at their current school.
Patton explained that if an Athens student is placed with a foster family in another county, that child can be enrolled immediately in a school in that county without needing to provide the required documentation (birth certificate, proof of residence, etc.) up front.
“This keeps the child from having to miss valuable school days while social workers try to locate documents that may not be easily attainable,” she said.
In case of a dispute between child welfare agencies and school districts, the state will provide assistance in determining what's best for the student. Patton said she doesn't see that being a problem within the city and county and that all groups will work hard for foster children.
“We are very blessed to have a great relationship with local welfare agencies, and we all are happy to have more flexibility in making decisions that will provide educational stability for children in foster care,” she said.