Suburban Districks Asking State for Help

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

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

For example, one of the school districts is in south suburban Ford Heights, the poorest municipality in Cook County, where 343 foster children live, according to DCFS.

The South Cook Education Consortium–”which is made up of South Holland School District 151, Posen-Robbins 143.5, West Harvey-Dixmoor 147, Dolton 148, Harvey 152, Ford Heights 169, General George Patton 133 and Prairie Hills 144–”initially came together to lobby state officials for regional school funding changes.

But their concerns about foster children have caught the attention of lawmakers.

Concentrations of foster children put “undue stress on the local school districts,” said state Rep. David E. Miller, whose district includes Dolton, Riverdale and Calumet Park, as well as, a little part 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 help districts get more money for foster children. The other would make sure districts get reimbursed for the special education costs of foster children, even after they are adopted.

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

As in the Chicago schools where foster children are concentrated, most of the students in these districts are black or Latino–”96 percent, in this case–”and most are poor–”about 78 percent.

These school districts are much smaller: Each has fewer than 3,200 students. The Chicago Public Schools has 437,618 students.

The problem, district leaders say, boils down to money. Dorothea Fitzgerald, superintendent of Dolton School District 148, said several of the school districts have had to hire extra social workers.

“These children bring with them their anger, [and] they bring with them their gaps in achievement, but they bring along nothing in terms of financial incentives,” she said.

The state currently reimburses districts 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 extra money for foster children in regular classrooms.

Under pressure from a federal law, DCFS changed its policy in the mid-1990s to actively encourage adoption. Thousands of children have been adopted ever since.

While DCFS gives most adoptive families subsidy payments, the state stops paying districts for a child’s special education costs the moment he or she is adopted. This can be between $13,000 and $25,000 a year, depending on the severity of the child’s needs.

Hamilton said 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.

In addition, the state 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, said Debra Fazekas, the director of special education at General George Patton School 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.”

While some of the districts are in old steel mill towns with entrenched poverty, others have seen dramatic demographic shifts in recent years. But all are in villages with dwindling property tax revenues. All are running budget deficits.

Because they are small, these school districts are particularly affected by any shifts in their student populations and any changes in the reimbursement they get from the state, said Doug Hamilton, superintendent of School District 151 in South Holland.

“Foster children are not the problem,” Hamilton said. “But in school districts with limited resources, in deficit spending, they are just one more straw on the camel’s back.”

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