This is the story of my foster child who I’ll call “Katrina.” Like many of the hurricane victims, she too has been jerked around by a bureaucratic system rife with finger-pointing and incompetence.
Only in this case it’s not the U.S. government (or the county social services system) that’s failed her, but the Berkeley Unified School District.
It’s a warm morning, the second week into the school year, and we’re on a noisy elementary school playground.
Katrina is sucking nervously on the collar of her dress, hiding behind me. She doesn’t want to meet her new teacher in what will become the fourth school she’s attended in two years. She doesn’t want a whole new crop of curious grade school kids to question the physical affliction that causes her limp, or to ask about the brace she wears. She’s tired of responding to the same questions that children at her former schools always asked: “Where’s your real mom?” “Why don’t you have a dad?” Katrina would prefer to talk about things like the pet hamster her sister (my daughter) bought her.
It’s likely the kids at the new school will ask about me, who she refers to as “Miss Annie,” and then she’ll think she has to explain about being a foster kid all over again. I’ll bet she’ll answer all the questions as patiently as she can even so, because Katrina’s mighty resilient as foster children are apt to be. She’ll probably charm her teacher in no time flat, just as she charmed me when she joined my family this past April. Eventually her classmates’ curiosity will be sated and perhaps by the time her birthday rolls around this winter she’ll even have a few friends to invite to a party.
In April when Katrina moved in, possibly for the long-haul, it was a no-brainer that she’d go to the same school my daughter attends. It’s public school—right? After I filled out the requisite paperwork it wasn’t long before I was waving goodbye to the girls each morning as they climbed onto the school bus. They’d come home all smiles and inside jokes, talking about kids they knew, teasing about boyfriends.
When I’d enrolled Katrina in April, the manager of the Admissions and Attendance Office told me that he couldn’t guarantee her a spot in the same school for September. There’s that 20-student-per-class limit that we’d all voted for, see. Yet by allowing her to attend the same school as my daughter from April through June, she became the twenty-first child in her class even so. At the time, I assumed that the sibling-preference rule would continue to supersede the class size rule in her case, and that by September Katrina would be firmly anchored in the school’s community—accepted, and gradually shedding the stigma of being a foster child with a disability.
Wishful thinking. Just before the start of this school year, I learned that Katrina would not be able to stay where she was, but would be assigned to a school that starts an hour earlier—promising extra-chaotic mornings.
I couldn’t believe it. I kept Katrina out of school for the first three days in hopes of space opening up at the school she longed to return to. That first afternoon I listened as my daughter told us about the many questions she’d fielded from students who’d asked where Katrina was. On Friday I went to the Admissions office and talked to the district’s Public Information Officer. He spewed numbers and statistics at me but what I remember most is the thousands of dollars a week he said the district would lose if Katrina were to stay at the same school she’d been permitted to attend in the Spring.
Why was Katrina booted out of a public school she was allowed to attend before?
An image came to mind, of children as dollar signs—faceless, but with arms and legs. I wanted to scream, but I restrained myself and finally spoke to the Manager of Admissions who assured me that he was doing all he could for Katrina.
So now here we are in the second week of school—and my foster daughter’s fledgling friendships that began to blossom last Spring are likely to wither. Most people believe that foster kids’ stability is tantamount to their success, but now Katrina has to start all over again thanks solely to bureaucratic blundering.
At her newest school, I explained our saga to a sympathetic teacher who claims it’s illegal for Admissions to “de-enroll” a student from public school. He suggested I talk to the Superintendent and sue the district if I had to, but the Public Information Officer had insisted that the Superintendent wouldn’t be able to change anything.
After Katrina’s first day at the new school I had to throw away the dress she had on. Its collar was all chewed up.
Freelance writer Annie Kassof lives in Berkeley with the two children in this story as well as her teenage son and a foster baby.›