In the earliest grades, LeAnna would cry because she found her homework so difficult. She just couldn’t understand the words on the page. After a few years of support from her grandmother turned foster mother turned adoptive mother, Theresa, and the teachers at St. Elizabeth Anne Seton (SEAS) school in Anchorage, LeAnna was firmly on track.
By the time LeAnna was in third grade, she sat down with an older girl whom Theresa was fostering, a freshman in high school, and discovered that they were at the same reading level. The older student was evidence of what LeAnna’s future would have been without the dedication of Theresa and SEAS.
Theresa applied for a foster license in 2014, when her granddaughter was placed in emergency foster care. After witnessing the dysfunction of the system and the tremendous need, she opened her door to other children. Over the years, Theresa has cared for around twenty children, sometimes individually and sometimes siblings, for periods up to fifteen months.
She knows first-hand the challenge of getting at-risk children the services they need through Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services and the public schools. One of her “foster kiddos,” as she calls them, endured a demoralizing stint in a behavioral hospital involving prescriptions for psychotropic medication and a missing psychiatrist. Yet, Theresa couldn’t even secure an individual education plan (IEP) from the child’s school. “The teachers were good,” she says, but the system was not. Of eight foster children whom she believes have truly needed IEPs, she was only able to secure two.
Unending vigilance, with a need constantly to be a squeaky wheel, is exhausting. The children need unending attention, too; they will simply check out if nobody cares enough to keep on them. In the blink of an eye, they’re in high school and six grade levels behind in their education.
LeAnna does not have a diagnosed learning disability, but emotional trauma during her first three years of life put her in a vulnerable place. She was struggling, and the waiting list for services at a well-known reading clinic was a year long; independent therapists were fully booked.
Knowing that a private school could fill the gap, Theresa decided to make the sacrifices necessary to cover tuition, even with a scholarship from the school. She put a hold on retirement from her job managing a chain restaurant and canceled her plans to travel. She went so far as to rent out a room in her house to bring in income that could help cover expensive private school tuition. She began driving LeAnna forty-five minutes each way from Eagle River to SEAS.
The sacrifice was rewarded.
The school’s low teacher-student ratio has meant that the teachers are tuned in to the needs of each child. The requirement for Theresa’s tireless advocacy for IEPs and other services evaporated. By second grade, LeAnna had caught up in reading.
Beyond subject matter, LeAnna was learning how to be a student. The nightly fight over homework ended, and she set a personal goal to transcend her C average in math. By the end of fifth grade, this year, she had achieved this milestone, even after the disruption of COVID-19.
The challenges are not over, however. Theresa is keenly aware that tuition increases for private high schools, which begin with seventh grade, and the prospect of public middle school terrifies her. She may have to leave the state to be closer to family members and the assistance they can provide.
One lifeline on which Theresa has leaned — and may lean harder — is the state reimbursement for correspondence school expenses, otherwise known as the correspondence school allotment program (CSAP). Families can receive a portion of the state’s Base Student Allocation (BSA), totaling thousands of dollars per year, by enrolling their children in participating public correspondence programs while also enrolling them in private schools that register as “correspondence school vendors.” The private schools provide the education, and the public schools reimburse families with state funds for non-religious pre-approved academic studies and extracurricular activities. SEAS has registered for the program, but it only carries children through grade six.
While LeAnna is thriving, frustrations with the public school system and the Office of Children Services led Theresa to decide against renewing her fostering license nine months ago. The slender hopes of at-risk children tighten a little bit with every good parent who burns out, and the dysfunctions of government child services are a daunting, long-running challenge across the country. Programs that make it easier for adults to offer advocacy and support, like CSAP, can immediately improve the outlook for at-risk children.
The experience of LeAnna and Theresa provides an encouraging example. Private education allowed Theresa to exchange some of the sacrifice of time for a sacrifice of money, which is much easier for compassionate donors and the government to supplement. Their help and Theresa’s devotion have changed LeAnna’s life from tears to achievement, and her story need not be as rare as it is.
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