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At-Risk Need a Mix of Good Teachers, Social Services Help

Karen Kaldenbach, an 18-year-old high school senior in Arlington County, remembers vividly what life was like when she was 11: "I saw Social Services almost as much as I saw my mother, who was always drunk. Her best friends, alcohol and money, were always there for her. She spent so much time with them, she couldn't raise my little sister and me. Social Services always came to talk to me at school. They asked questions about my family. My response? A lie, always."

Such stories are not uncommon in the Washington area. They often end unhappily. Yet these days, Kaldenbach is thriving, with a supportive adoptive mother, plus awards, scholarships and an acceptance letter from George Mason University.

We are in the midst of a national debate, its outcome uncertain, over what should be the emphasis of efforts to fix public schools. Some say the focus should be on improving teaching. Only in the classroom, they say, is there a chance to give students -- particularly those in poverty -- the tools they need to succeed. Others say teachers cannot reach those children until their family lives, shaken by parental joblessness or mental or physical illness, are straightened out by government action.

Karen's story suggests that only a deft mix of great teaching and energetic social services can do the job, particularly for children in the deepest trouble. Her story is also important because we so rarely hear about the plight of children in foster care or those who have other significant burdens hidden from view by privacy concerns.

Much of the credit for Karen's success goes to Isabel Kaldenbach, a family lawyer who became the foster mother of Karen and her sister, Jenny, in 2003 and adopted them in 2005. The Social Services people who welcomed her into the system deserve applause. But Isabel Kaldenbach, 47, sent me a long list of others whose roles were not so obvious, including many public educators and officials who found ways to ease the strain and open new opportunities for Karen and Jenny.

At the federal level, Kaldenbach discovered when she filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form that her income would be disregarded in deciding how much support Karen would get when she started college. This new rule affects any child in foster care after age 13, recognizing that a late-adopting parent has less time to plan financially for big tuition bills. "Whoever thought this up deserves a huge pat on the back," Isabel Kaldenbach said.

The state of Virginia, in particular George Mason University, enhanced Karen's chances of getting into and thriving in college with the Early Identification Program. It is for Northern Virginia students, and Arlington has 125 participants at the moment. College administrators look for students who would be the first in their families to go to college. The program includes tutoring and college counseling through high school. "It asks a lot of the kids -- weekly tutoring, summer school the entire month of July every year, weekend events -- and holds them to strict academic standards," Kaldenbach said.

At the local level, Arlington educators were heroes in the story of the Kaldenbach girls. "Barcroft Elementary, led by amazing Principal Miriam Hughey-Guy, gave Jenny intensive tutoring," her mother said, "and she came from way behind in first grade to make a great showing on her fifth-grade [state] tests and has been on honor roll at Thomas Jefferson Middle School or a near-miss for two years there."

Wakefield High School did the same for Karen, with good teaching and help from counselors Kelly Carruthers and John Clisham. "She took about twice as many [Advanced Placement] classes as I ever did," Kaldenbach said. "Her hard-working counselors gave her information and kicks in the pants as needed, and the school kept students and parents up to speed on postsecondary procedures, such as SATs, college and scholarship applications."

In an essay that made her a runner-up for the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, Karen summarized what she teaches in a class for would-be foster parents, her lesson on what children emerging from the shock of family disintegration need: "One, to love themselves. They are not the reason their family is no longer together. Most foster kids think that, but they're wrong. Two, listen to them. Truly listen to the story of what they have gone through. Three, respect them as precious human beings, not some statistical problem. Overall, they need to make the foster child feel that they belong as an important part of this new family."

They are children on the margins, easy to ignore. It is good to remember that many public servants, both educators and social workers, spend their lives bringing such kids into the center of life in America. Once they have that opportunity, the chances are they will, like Karen Kaldenbach, return that favor in a big way.


By Washington Post Editors  | May 25, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  at-risk students  
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