On the Road with FMC

On the Road to Educational Equality

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In the far Northwest corner of Massachusetts you will find Orange, a small community in the heart of a region best described as the Appalachia of New England, due to rampant poverty and rural isolation.

When Paul Burnim took over as Orange’s Superintendent of Public Schools in 2003 he had a staff of 88. Eight years later, under the glowering specter of economic woe, the school district struggles to support its 800-plus students with 66 employees. “You have a situation where you see increasing need and reducing resources,” Burnim says.

But in a school district where 62% of children receive free or reduced lunch, 15% are homeless, and another 6% are in foster care, not addressing the need is simply not an option.

Despite successive budget cuts, Burnim knew he had to make sure the children who needed education most were connected to his schools. “We needed someone who could deal with issues and barriers that hinder a child’s success in school,” he says. So in 2006 he took advantage of forward-thinking grants offered by the state child welfare administration and public education to hire Joanne Woodcock for the newly created position of school-to-home liaison. Five years later, Woodcock has dealt with the myriad problems affecting Orange’s students and their families.

When one of the little boys in the district elementary school was removed from his family and moved to a foster home far from school, Woodcock made sure a van was hired to get him to school every day. “For him school is the only stable place in his life,” she says.

In meetings with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), now charged with the young boy’s care, Woodcock and the boy’s social worker determine what is in his best interest. As part of a coordinated effort with DCF, Woodcock has set up family visitation at school with the goal of reunifying a family fractured by poverty and employment instability. However difficult foster care may be for the little boy, it is a little easier because people are focused on making it better.

Everywhere I have gone as the director of Fostering Media Connections, I have seen bright spots of incredible change. And I have also come to understand education is the lynchpin to seeing that potential unleashed. But, of yet, we are a society that does a poor job of tapping that incredible resource. As little as 2% of Americans have experienced foster care, but statistics show that as much as half of our homeless population has been involved with the system. If there was ever a beachhead in that long forgotten War on Poverty, creating a pipeline for the educational equality of children experiencing foster care is it.

This May, Fostering Media Connec-tions launched its “On the Road to Educational Equality” tour—a series of town halls across the country focusing on the intersection of education and foster care. Our first stop was Western New England College and our marquis guest was CWLA President and CEO Christine James-Brown. With the leadership of visionaries like her and employees like Joanne Woodcock, I feel confident that we can start changing the foster care narrative and increasingly unleash the potential in all children—especially children in foster care.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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