Every year, thousands of young people in foster care and other situations supervised by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services end up in “on-ground schools” – programs or schools that are located “on the grounds” of residential placements, including group homes, mental health facilities, and juvenile justice facilities.
Scattered across Pennsylvania, these private institutions can provide valuable, specialized services, but advocates say they can create problems too. Limited curricula, inadequate credits, socially isolated classrooms, and a lack of effective oversight can leave students frustrated and underserved,and knock them off their pathways to graduation.
We sat down with Maura McInerney, an award-winning attorney and legal director with the Education Law Center, who won a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of children in foster care and has expertise on the rights of children in care. We asked her to explain more about “on-ground schools” and how agencies and educators can help them better serve students. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is an on-ground school, exactly? Do they look like typical schools?
A: There are hundreds of them. They can look and function like a regular school, or they can be a few children in a classroom doing worksheets or cyber school. Multiple grades in a small class are very common.
Q: Who licenses and monitors these schools?
A: The vast majority are licensed as private academic schools by the Pennsylvania Department of Education; the state does cyclical monitoring once every six years. A few residential schools are operated by school districts or intermediate units.
Q: Do they administer PSSAs or other standardized tests?
A: The private academic schools would not, and their curriculum does not need to align with that of a public school. If it’s run by a school district, it absolutely would.
Q: So, not much performance data for most of these schools?
A: That’s right. And those tests are there to ensure that all children receive a quality public education. In most cases, a private school is a voluntary school of choice for parents. Here, these are publicly placed children, ordered by the court, but we lose that standard of accountability.
Q: Do school districts play any role matching students to educational programs?
A: Many cases are assigned by DHS, but they can be court-ordered, or placed through the mental health system. In a very small number of cases, they may be placed by a school district to meet particular needs – such as a student with disabilities.
Q: How about program quality – are school districts responsible for monitoring that?
A: If a child has disabilities, the local district where that child is placed – what we call the “host” district – becomes responsible for quality. But for the child who is not disabled, the on-ground school functions like any other private academic school – the local school district is not responsible for the educational needs of that child.
Q: But districts pay the tuition, right? If a student from Philadelphia is placed in a Lehigh Valley facility, it’s the School District of Philadelphia that pays?
A: Correct. There are different types of licenses – for an “approved private school,” the state pays 60 percent of the tuition and the school district pays 40 percent. But for the district, that’s the end of that relationship – it’s a financial duty.
Q: Based on the cases you’ve taken up over the years, what sorts of problems crop up for students at these schools?
A: The quality of the education in an on-ground school is very often inferior to what they’d receive in a public school. They don’t have the same opportunities or the same curricula. Ninth-grade algebra ends up being second-grade worksheets. Then, when they return to their regular neighborhood school, they’re so far behind that they give up and drop out. That’s devastating for a child in foster care who really needs their education to be a lifeline.
Q: Is it true that credit transfers are an issue? That some students don’t get the academic credits they need to stay on track to graduate?
A: It’s a huge problem. We have 500 different school districts, 500 different district requirements. And a neighborhood school is only required to accept credits from other public schools. They can say, “I don’t accept any of your credits because they’re from a private institution.”
There’s even one on-ground school that does not award credits at all! This drives more children to give up and drop out than any other scenario I can think of.
Q: Aren’t students placed in residential facilities entitled to go to a regular public school in that “host” district?
A: Yes. That’s their entitlement by law. But in many instances, judges require that children attend the on-ground school, because the students have a history of truancy and the judges want to make sure they actually attend school.
It’s also a huge problem that we don’t have enough school districts who have inclusive programs for students with disabilities. As a result, children get placed in the more isolated setting.