Staci Elder Hensley | August 3, 2019

School-voucher program is helping Oklahoma foster kids

Staci Elder Hensley

No one would dispute that the road to academic success for children in Oklahoma’s foster care system is tougher than that for other students, especially if the child has special needs. 

For many of these at-risk students, however, that road is a little less tough to navigate since Oklahoma lawmakers in 2017 expanded the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship program to include children in foster care. 

Originally established in 2010, the LNH scholarship program assists students with disabilities and special needs who struggle in the public-school setting. There are 52 participating private schools across Oklahoma, and it’s estimated that 15 percent of the state’s students are eligible. 

Thanks to the 2017 expansion, now caregivers and adoptive parents of foster children can use these LNH vouchers to enroll students in a private school of their choosing that aligns more closely with their child’s specific needs. 

Foster children who are eligible for the LNH program fall into several categories, said Deana Silk, assistant director of communications for the Oklahoma Department of Education. Students must be in an out-of-home foster placement through the state’s Department of Human Services, have been adopted out of foster care while in permanent DHS custody, or else live in an out-of-home placement through the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.  

Initially, 58 foster or former foster students were approved for scholarships during the 2017-2018 school year. For the 2018-19 school year, that number more than doubled, with 124 students receiving assistance, Silk said. 

For Julie M., who with her husband adopted two half-sisters from foster care in 2015, the program’s expansion to include foster children has been a godsend. The girls were ages eight months and 3 ½ years old when they came into Julie’s care. The oldest daughter, Stella, is now seven and suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the after-effects of severe abuse in her early years. Learning of her situation, the family was referred to the LNH program by a fellow foster parent.

Receiving the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship has allowed Julie to enroll Stella at the Academy of Classical Christian Studies in Oklahoma City, where she receives constant personalized attention addressing her educational, emotional, and behavioral needs. Next year, Julie says, the family will pursue a scholarship for four-year-old Marlowe, who will start pre-kindergarten. Each scholarship covers about half of the school’s tuition.

“My older daughter had experienced very severe abuse before coming to us, and we’re learning what to do to help her heal,” Julie said. “It is a huge difference from public school. The Academy teachers have been incredible at walking us through this. They work with her, they create safety plans, they redirect her behavior, and they try to help her in every way, knowing she comes from a place of trauma. They are able to closely supervise her and consistently address behavior issues. She leaves school joyfully every day, and she feels loved and cared for.

“We would not have been able to place her in this environment without the help of the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship,” she added. “Public schools simply don’t have the ability to help her in the way she needs.”

Former state Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie, was the driving force behind expansion of the LNH program to include foster children, along with state Rep. John Echols, R-Oklahoma City, and state Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman. Griffin said she authored the legislation with the intent of recognizing that foster children often have mental health conditions that don’t necessarily translate into a disability diagnosis. 

“I am both a former teacher and a former foster parent, so this is very personal to me,” Griffin said. “Over my 20 years of working with Oklahoma kids, I saw far too many kids in care who were not thriving at school. They needed a different environment than the environment provided by a traditional public school. It is a tragedy when a kid does not meet their full potential because we don’t employ every single resource we have available to help them get where they need to be to succeed. 

“This program can also help us recruit and maintain quality foster families,” she added. “Foster family turnover is a major indicator of the health of a child welfare system.”

The policy of school vouchers in general often meets with resistance, and Oklahoma is no exception. “We do get pushback from the established public education community,” Griffin said. “They feel this program threatens their funding. Currently just over 800 Oklahoma kids are using the program, and that represents .02 percent of the total education funding. Meeting the needs of these families does not threaten public education in Oklahoma.”

Griffin added that she would like to see the LNH scholarship program opened up to include homeless children and students who are enrolled in treatment programs.

For Julie and her daughters, meanwhile, the impact of this legislation is far more personal. “All foster and adopted kids come out of an atmosphere of trauma,” she said. “Even when you take them out of the situation, they still have trauma, even if they were never abused. This program is a way to deal with that in a positive way. If I know of a family who has fostered and adopted, I always tell them about it, and I hope and pray they can use it like we have.”

Staci Elder Hensley

Independent Journalist

Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.

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