Lessons Learned from a Graduation for Youth in Foster Care – Part 1

05_teenagers_r_wHave you ever had one of those times when you expected one thing and got the exact opposite?  A meeting – a meal – a concert – a family reunion?  That is what happened last week when I attended the graduation celebration for a group of foster care youth.  Sponsored by True Up, Benchmark, Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth, Kentucky Safe, and the Department for Community Based Services, the celebration lifted up the youngsters from Boys and Girls Haven, Home of the Innocents, Maryhurst, and Uspritus.

As a retired educator, I literally have been to hundreds of graduation events over the decades.  While serving as chief deputy superintendent in Jefferson County, each June meant 25 ceremonies in two weeks.  So I know graduations.  You know – often irrelevant to the kids who just want that sheepskin and the freedom to split; tedium to the educators who are only hoping that nothing goes wrong; and, largely boring to the crowd with the sixty second exception when that special name is called and that special grad walks across the stage.

I was ready for that kind of night.  Instead, you could tell the vibe was different when you walked in the door.  I have to be honest – a speech commitment made me leave before the youngsters actually received their awards, but I was there long enough to notice several nuances.

  • Adults like Nikki Thornton from True Up and Jeannette Stratton from Boys and Girls Haven were there early and transforming the gym at the Home of the Innocents into party central.  Balloons and banners set the tone that this was a moment to celebrate and not sleep through.
  • Attention had been paid to what was going to light up the eyes of the graduates.  Educators call this developmentally appropriate practice.  Business calls it customer-centric practices.  I call it common sense.  Instead of rows of chairs and assigned seats, there was a deejay blaring out the tunes.  A photo booth which was free!  Lots of swag!  And, drumroll, all the free food you could eat.
  • Finally, there was the relevance of the program itself.  As an example, — the University of Louisville’s football superstar Lorenzo Malden eloquently and elegantly talked about his days as a foster youth and what it means to emerge from that system to be a success.  Whereas most graduation addresses are met, at best, with tepid politeness, the young people were enraptured as much by his message as they were by his multi-colored and well-coifed dreads.

It is one thing to reflect on the “magic” and intentionality of that ceremony.  But perhaps more importantly, we can ask questions around the “takeaways” from the True Up event.  In the next couple of weeks, I want to reflect on a couple of those questions.  One will have to do with the needed reforms around state agency schools (How do we ensure every kid in foster care receives quality education?) and the second will address the complex issue of youth aging out of foster care (Where will these wonderful grads be in twelve months?)

But let me start by sharing the first question that came to my mind.

How can public schools incorporate similar principles of developmentally appropriate practices as the foster care champions used who created this event?

While some schools do this well, some seem to focus on making kids comply with adult convenience rather than inspiring adults to create environments that meet kids where they are at.  One concern I have around this is the growing emphasis on kindergarten readiness.  I know it’s extremely important for kids to start learning at a young age so they can succeed in school.  I also know kindergarten readiness provides us with a valuable metric so we can analyze trends and understand how to help kids in their early years. But there are so many barriers such as poverty that make it difficult for all kindergarteners to hit that standard.

I have written about this before, but I’d like to see superintendents, political figures and philanthropic funders also press the other important side of the kindergarten readiness equation — the need for schoolhouses to become more attentive to the cognitive and noncognitive needs of those fresh-faced and eager five year-olds whether they tested “ready” for kindergarten or not.

I love that the graduation ceremony was designed to fit the young people rather than make the young people comply with adult convenience or conventional practice.  I hope there are some lessons learned from this that can be used to improve education for all children, especially when they are young.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog next week!

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