By Kirsten Adair
A new report detailing education for Indiana’s 22,895 foster children tells a familiar story that officials say has not changed much over the past five years.
The report, which is presented once a year by the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana Department of Child Services, shows educational outcomes for children in the foster care system.
According to this year’s report from the 2021-2022 school year, foster children in Indiana are twice as likely to rely on graduation waivers compared to their peers and twice as likely to be held back, especially in kindergarten.
Melaina Gant is DCS's director of education services. At the Indiana State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, she said foster children can struggle significantly in school because of the effect of trauma on their brains.
“They’re not able to retain [information] at that time because their trauma is stopping it from reaching the right portion of their brain to be able to process it long-term,” Gant said.
This year's report also shows an increase in suspension and expulsion rates among children in foster care. Koyauna Jones, foster youth and social work specialist at the IDOE, said those increases are likely impacted by children returning to school after the pandemic with reduced social skills.
“They have not been in school to learn those social skills,” Jones said.
In response to the report, the IDOE and DCS are working on a remediation plan that includes encouraging schools to use positive discipline practices, enrolling eligible foster kids in early learning and intervention programs, and increasing support and services offered to foster children to help them graduate.
Gant said DCS’s First Steps program is already making a difference for children in the foster system because every child who enters into agency’s care is recommended for it. It is an optional program, however, so children are not required to participate.
Although enrollment in the program has gone up in recent years, Gant said she would like to see even more kids enrolled since many foster kids struggle in kindergarten.
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Gant said increasing support and services for foster students and encouraging schools to use positive discipline practices are long-term efforts that DCS and IDOE also have detailed in past remediation plans, but she added that they can be difficult to implement when schools are not trauma-informed.
“As an educator, you have to change a lot about how you present, your style, and really how you think, because you have to rephrase how you say things to be more sensitive in the trauma environment,” she said. "It’s been a big challenge because children who are suffering from trauma have big behaviors, and they have really strong behaviors. They’ll say things that they’ve heard, but they don’t really understand the impact of what they’ve said.”
Gant said another important aspect of using positive discipline practices is attendance. If students leave school or are thrown out due to attendance issues, they are falling even further behind and fueling the outcomes detailed in this year’s report.
“It perpetuates the cycle and perpetuates those gaps, and then we get outcomes like this,” she said.
Gant and Jones said DCS and the IDOE will continue to implement past remediation plans on top of the remediation plan they presented to the State Board of Education this week. Additionally, Gant discussed the possibility of adding more resources for educators to understand trauma and deal with various situations as they are happening in classrooms.
Kirsten is our education reporter. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @kirsten_adair.