South suburban districts grapple with influx of foster children

Print More
District Statistics

District Statistics

Chicago schools are not the only ones grappling with the education of former and current foster children. Eight south suburban school districts are asking the state legislature for help with such students.

The superintendents of these districts say that in the past seven or eight years they have seen an influx of foster children and children who were recently adopted.

The school districts realized they shared this problem after they got together to form the South Cook Education Consortium to lobby for regional school funding changes. Districts that joined are in South Holland, Posen-Robbins, West Harvey-Dixmoor, Dolton, Harvey, Ford Heights, Markham and Riverdale.

Concentrations of foster children put “undue stress on the local school districts,” says State Rep. David Miller, whose district includes Calumet City and parts of Chicago’s South Side.

This past legislative session, Miller introduced two bills that he thinks would help. One would change the school funding formula to make sure districts get extra money for foster children. The other would make sure districts get reimbursed for educating special-needs foster children, even after they are adopted.

Dorothea Fitzgerald, superintendent of Dolton School District 148, says several of the school districts have had to hire extra social workers to serve the needs of these children. “These children bring with them their anger, [and] they bring with them their gaps in achievement,” she says. “But they bring along nothing in terms of financial incentives.”

With the state facing a budget crunch, neither bill was passed, but Miller said he will push them again in the spring.

Like Chicago, these districts are overwhelmingly black or Latino (97 percent) and poor (about 80 percent). Unlike Chicago, all of the districts have dwindling property-tax bases and deficits.

While some of the districts are in old steel mill towns with entrenched poverty, others have seen a dramatic influx of low-income families from the city in recent years.

These districts are small, enrolling fewer than 3,300 students each. As a result, even small changes in student populations can have an impact on both operations and finances.

“Foster children are not the problem,” says Doug Hamilton, superintendent of School District 151 in South Holland. “But in school districts with limited resources, in deficit spending, they are just one more straw on the camel’s back.”

The state currently sends districts extra money for foster children whose special education needs require them to be taught at home or in therapeutic day schools. But schools don’t get any money for foster children in regular schools.

Under pressure from a federal law, DCFS changed its policy in the mid-1990s to encourage adoption. Since then, thousands of children have been adopted out of foster care.

While DCFS gives most adoptive families a stipend, the state stops paying the special education costs the moment a child is adopted. This can be between $13,000 and $25,000, depending on the severity of the child’s needs. Hamilton says he and others are glad to see the state finding permanent homes for foster children, but he believes the school districts should continue to be reimbursed after the children are adopted.

Similarly, DCFS usually pays for counseling for foster children, but the funding stops if the children are adopted. That means less attention is paid to their emotional needs, says Deborah Sazeks, the director of special education at General George Patton School in District 133 in Riverdale.

“Then even more falls back to the schools, and the school is being looked at as the end all, be all,” she says.

Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher contributed to this report.