Thursday, June 12, 2014

Consistency at Home Is Key to Student Success

“I didn’t come to school because my uniform was at my mom’s house and I slept at my dad’s two days last week.”
“I was late because I stayed at my cousin’s house and her mom didn’t get us up.” 
“I overslept because I was staying in my aunt’s room and she had the TV on all night.”
“I missed school because I stayed at my dad’s and he lives in West Baltimore.” 
“I was late for school because I stayed with my Grandmother and 
had to take my cousin to school and then didn’t know which bus to take.”

When a student moves from house to house or family member to family member he or she suffers from a lack of structure, the absence of routine, and inconsistent rules and expectations. Because Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) students rely heavily on public transportation, each new move often also means figuring out a new bus schedule. Such was the case with Kiera, a 5th grader who was shuffled between the care of her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts. Sometimes she arrived at her school’s weekly CFCC Truancy Court Program (TCP) meetings from her mother’s house exhausted and reserved, insisting that all she liked to do at home was sleep. At other times she arrived late because she had to take a bus to school from her grandmother’s house, which was fifteen miles outside Baltimore City limits. Yet there were times when she came to school rested and talkative, with her hair neatly combed and clothes clean and pressed. The TCP team learned that those were weeks when she was staying with an aunt who lived far away but who provided consistency, care, and reliable transportation to and from school. Although Kiera liked to stay with her aunt, she did not know from day to day where she would be expected to spend the next night, and her ability to keep up with schoolwork and control her behavior suffered as a result.

In December, Kiera’s attendance improved dramatically. Between December and March, Kiera was present and on time every day. Her grades improved, as did her behavior. The TCP team learned that Kiera had been staying with her aunt.  For the first time since August, she had been in one place for almost four months, and her school record reflected that consistency.  Kiera’s aunt, however, was not her legal guardian, and Kiera could be removed from her care by either of her parents at any moment.  The aunt asked the TCP team if anything could be done to make her caregiving arrangement permanent and enforceable. 

What can be done?

In cases like Kiera’s, where students are being moved from the custody of one caregiver to another, it is critical for caregivers to understand the importance of consistency and stability. The TCP team counsels each family member to value the student’s education and to make a commitment to help him or her get to school on time, regardless of where the student stays. Mediation services can bring together family and community members to ensure that the students’ attendance remains consistent. The inconsistency of many custodial arrangements often stems from the fact that they are informal. Thus, establishing legal guardianship for one party can provide consistency and permanency by specifying who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of the child. Similarly, a legal determination of physical custody can provide stability by establishing a clear schedule for the student. These legal determinations also help by empowering caregivers with the right to make enforceable decisions regarding the student, even if others disagree.  In some extreme and rare cases in which one of the caregivers is neglectful or abusive, filing a report with Child Protective Services may be necessary to ensure that a child is removed from or kept out of a dangerous situation.

Whether the solution takes the form of a legally enforceable document or simply a verbal consensus among caregivers, consistency in a student’s home life increases his or her potential for academic and social success.  With the help of the TCP team, Kiera’s family is trying to find a lasting solution that will work for them and, most importantly, for Kiera.