Complex childhoods and a complex school system

Chuck Caputo earned a BS in Business, Health Care Administration and Gerontology as well as an MS in Healthcare Administration, both from Alfred University in upstate New York. Chuck worked in the field of Human Services his whole career in various capacities, including time spent improving quality control in US military clinics and with the accreditation body, the Council on Accreditation (COA). His specific interest in young people and adolescents brought him to The Foundling and his current position as VP for Training and Youth Development. He’s been with The Foundling since 2006. 


The New York City public school system is one of the largest and most complex in the country. Over 1.1 million students are taught in more than 1,700 schools. A combination of mandates and bureaucracy make the entire system overwhelming. Even the most involved parents can find it difficult to navigate and keep their child on the path to educational success.

There is an added layer of complexity when the child in question is a foster youth. As my colleague Dr. Mel Schneiderman noted in his recent mental health blog, children are most often placed in foster care because they have experienced abuse and/or neglect. A vulnerable population, foster youth is 50% more likely than their general community peers to develop emotional and psychological problems. Because of the trauma foster children have experienced in their young lives, their educational careers progress at a different pace, and in a different way, than that of their general public counterparts.


The educational challenges of foster youth are further exacerbated by frequent changes in home placements, which often result in changes in school placements. Changing schools means potential record transfer issues, a different curricula, and new teachers, peers and schools officials who may not be equipped to handle the unique issues facing foster youth. Because of these unique challenges coupled with perhaps not a consistent advocate for their education–who most children have in their parents–foster youth are 2 times more likely than their peers to drop out of school. In fact, national averages reveal that less than 60% of foster youth will finish high school before leaving care. The ripple effect of this is higher rates of homelessness (21% of youth who leave care enter a homeless shelter within 3 years), unemployment (50% are unemployed at any given time), and welfare dependency amongst young adults who have aged out of foster care.


In response to these dismal stats, The New York Foundling launched an Educational Specialist program in October 2012.  Our educational specialists act like mentors, helping foster children find and stay on a path to school and/or vocational success. We currently have 4 full-time educational specialists and they’ve already managed 120 cases in the short time since the program started. Each specialist has been through the New York City public school system and knows its ins and outs. Three have advanced degrees in social work, and one was a foster child herself.


Each case is centrally assigned to an Educational Specialist and represents a young person between ages 12-21, who is struggling with his or her education. Many of these cases are opened because there is a record of poor grades or attendance, behavioral issues or there is doubt the student will be promoted to the next grade level.  Within a 4-6 week time period, the specialist is able to create a complete educational profile, identifying the issues at hand and implementing an action plan to successfully address them. They work collaboratively with the child’s social worker and foster parents. While the social worker maintains the ultimate responsibility for the child’s wellbeing and care, the specialist works solely as an educational and vocational ally for the student. The two roles complement and enhance each other’s efficacy.


We’ve had a great deal of early successes in this program, and we feel that this is an efficient and cutting edge way of dealing with a problem that is only growing as budget cuts hit schools and force special services, like tutoring programs, to often be canceled. One example of a triumph is a young lady named Lisa.* Lisa is a foster child who was assigned an educational specialist due to chronic absences, lack of motivation and a doubt that she would graduate high school. Our specialist uncovered some of the underlying reasons for these problems – the school’s guidance counselor (now retired) had placed Lisa in the very same Algebra class 3 times, despite her passing it every single time! Unnecessarily re-taking classes meant Lisa was never placed in other classes that were required for graduation. She understandably felt discouraged that she wouldn’t graduate with her class. Further complicating matters, Lisa’s Spanish speaking foster parent was unfamiliar with the nuances of the school system and also unable to advocate for her due to language barriers. The educational specialist was able to be that advocate—flagging issues for the Department of Education, ACS and the school, and getting Lisa on track to graduate. We’re happy to share that Lisa has been accepted to Fulton-Montgomery Community College and will be starting in September.  All it took to achieve this outcome was someone to pay close attention and advocate on Lisa’s behalf.


Want to help The Foundling promote educational achievement and success? We’re looking for generous donors to help us expand our educational program. For just $100, we can send a qualified tutor to a struggling student’s home, and spend 1.5 hours on school work with him or her – twice.  Each tutoring session could make the difference between a child failing or passing his or her next Algebra quiz. And, now that public schools are no longer mandated to provide in-house tutoring, this service is more necessary than ever before! If you’d like to help out or learn more about the efficient and effective ways The Foundling is tackling obstacles to educational success for foster youth, please visit our Crowdrise fundraising page!

*name changed

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