Educating Foster Children for Life

Submitted by James Kenny, PhD on Tue, 06/19/2012 - 10:00

I just returned from a national foster care conference where we held the usual raffles to raise money for college scholarships.  I have a problem.  Education is the way one generation passes on its accumulated knowledge to the next.  We need to expand our understanding of education.  It is not all about college.  Learning means making sense of the environment by interacting with the people and things around us.  Choosing an appropriate course of study is becoming important not only for foster children but for all young people.

    Going to college has become more and more expensive.  Is it worth the money?  In today’s market, a college degree no longer guarantees a job.  Employers are more interested in what an applicant knows than in any paper degree.

    Further, foster children are survivors and doers.  They are often not emotionally programmed to sit in class for long periods and attempt to pass multiple choice tests.  We have fostered several intellectually gifted children who went to college and dropped out during or after their first semester.  If we wish to give these young men and women gifts of knowledge that lead to competence, we need to appreciate where they are and how they are most likely to learn.  

    Here are some valid ways, other than a four-year college, to develop job skills and learn about life:
•    Junior one- or two-year colleges with courses or programs that lead to certification in specific job fields.
•    Apprenticing in skilled trades or at a lab.  
•    Using a summer job to acquire knowledge and skills in fields from auto mechanics to veterinary skills. 
•    Mentoring.  This is what parents do for an adopted child.  Foster children who are emancipated need a mentor to see them through the transition to independence.
•    Frequenting local public libraries to attend multiple workshops on computer skills and make use of their language labs.  Or simply to learn to read.
•    Computers are great teachers.  You have to keep trying until you push the right key to get in.  Once there, they provide an endless source of information when you learn how to find it.  
•    Taking TV time to enjoy the History and Discovery channels and programs such as National Geographic specials.
•    Travel is educational.  Going places one has never been opens one’s mind to new possibilities.  Travel gets us away from ghetto thinking.
•    Life experience is the best teacher and foster children have had considerable. Take advantage of those experiences to explore areas of social service.  Many former foster children grow up to become foster parents because they know the territory.
•    And so much more.
    College is not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, to provide life skills for our newly launched foster children.  Providing all our scholarship monies for an expensive college degree program is narrow-minded.  Foster children may not finish and may not even get a job if they do.  Far better to broaden our concept of education for tomorrow’s world and fashion programs for learning that are unique to each child.  

    A mentor or an “education specialist” might help each foster-to-adult child design his or her own unique program to prepare for life.  Imagine a two-year program that involved a combination of the above possibilities.  An apprenticeship with a local landscaper might be combined with working on a second language at the local library.  A one-year training program in x-ray technology might be combined with a volunteer job in that field.  Scholarship monies could be used to pay for courses or to pay living expenses while learning at the library or on a volunteer job.

    Quarterly accountability would be important.  Continued educational funding would depend, not upon grades, but upon performance on the job, measured by employer reports, through keeping a journal, or in some other practical way.  Obviously, this would require a foster parent or older concerned adult to monitor the individual program.  But one-on-one supervision, coupled with a designer program to provide life skills, could make effective use of scholarship funds.