Many years ago, I had to come to terms with an issue that during my adolescent years caused me a bit of internal pain.
Because of my young parents’ crass negligence, at age 6, I was pulled from their custody and placed in the care of Philadelphia’s child protection services — the Department of Human Services.
Needless to say, this unfortunate situation embarrassed me, sometimes making me feel insignificant and even invisible. The absolute worst was knowing that I was earmarked as a statistic least likely to succeed — foster care, a direct line to an improvised adulthood.
For 15 of my formative years, I lived in three foster homes quartered in low socioeconomic areas, attending subpar schools with insufficient resources.
My journey started in a home for girls only, a place where I was mistreated and always humiliated. By the time I turned 7.5 years old, I was moved to a second house where my three brothers and I could be raised together. There, I was violated by an adult. The nightly unnecessary trips to the bathroom to watch me tinkle eventually led to molestation, and thereafter, for many years to come, bedtime was anything but restful.
In retrospect, what I find most disturbing is how, down through the years with a total of 10 social workers who managed my family in their caseload, no one ever asked me about my safety or whether I had any concerns — a prime example of how the system can fail children.
In spite of it all, I know that I am/was not responsible for the terrible things that happened to me. Instead, I have learned to redeem my childhood by becoming the best adult I can possibly be.
My well-being and self-esteem were secured the day my brothers and I were placed in care of Mrs. Edith C. Tumlin (1918-2007). Although she had just three years of schooling, she deeply and completely understood the power of having a formal and complete education. Her daily mantra was: “Read and learn something new.” Wrapped in love, her sincerity, her thirst for knowledge (awarded Foster Parent of the Year), her affecting spirituality and sagacious wisdom, all wrapped in love, helped me to be a successful person.
This snapshot of my time spent in foster care is a point of reference that shows how students in foster care can suffer loss, detachment, violation, and trauma, and still make emotional adjustments for learning.
In 2014, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund wrote a blog for Huffpost titled, “The Invisible Achievement Gap: Students in Foster Care,” addressing the academic concerns of children in foster care. She says, “We must not let any of our children remain invisible or go without the help they need to receive a quality education.”
Research tells us that children in foster care generally have lower educational and career attainment than their counterparts, yet the states that are legally responsible for them know very little about their educational careers. I believe that, to eliminate the invisible achievement gap, educators can begin by nurturing these students with dignity.
Some might ask, how do we close the invisible achievement gap for students in care?
We can start by looking upon these students knowing that they are in care through no fault of their own; therefore, offering them an empathetic heart and an active ear when addressing their educational concerns.
Secondly, since implications and consequences of placement, neglect, and abuse cause emotional distress — only to place students at higher risk of poor educational outcomes — teachers should set expectations that will allow students to soar beyond their presumed potentials. At all costs, they should be taught to read well enough to become critical thinkers and learners.
The most successful approach is allowing them to be a part of the decision-making process, giving them the freedom of choice. Reading literature of choice and reading about what they live will stimulate the joy of reading, propelling them to become great readers. I can attest to this because the day my 5th-grade teacher marched the entire class down the hall to the library, encouraging us to pick whatever we wanted to read, is when I started my journey as a lifelong reader.
Below are two books used in 2013-14, when I received a Leeway Art and Change Grant to develop a mentorship and literacy workshop, focused on improving the lives of children (girls) in foster care.