For Kelley Page, a foster child in Maryland, there were five homes and five high schools in the space of four years. And sometimes, when she moved, there was no school at all, as she waited for her records to be transferred.
When she finally donned her white cap and gown and collected her diploma from her last high school, Perry Hall in Baltimore County, she felt a sense of numb relief.
"I passed. That's all I know," recalled Page, 19. "It was finally over."
Many of the nation's half-million foster children confront great obstacles in finishing school. Often the victims of neglect or abuse, many lag academically. In other cases, the fault lies with social services and school officials who don't move quickly enough to place these transient children in the right school programs.
The failure of states to meet the educational needs of children in their care is widespread, federal auditors concluded after a review released last year. Only 16 states -- one of them Virginia -- achieved a federal standard for meeting the educational needs for at least 90 percent of children in foster or in-home care.
Maryland achieved substantial conformity in 86.5 percent of cases and the District in 78.6 percent, according to results released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What's more, Maryland legislative auditors reported they could find no documentation that 35 percent of school-age foster children in the state were attending schools in 2002. In another review published this March, auditors reached the same conclusion for 2003.
The state Department of Human Resources has challenged the auditors' findings, saying that the conclusions merely reflected poor documentation and that only 2 percent of foster children are out of school.
Anecdotally, social workers and advocates said record transfers and the general transience among foster children have led to days, sometimes weeks, out of school.
At Eastern Point Group Home in Annapolis, one foster child missed nearly five months of classes over the past school year, due in large part to missing records, said Brenda Fraser, the home's program director.
"We should be able to get them enrolled in three or four days," she said.
The boy, whom Fraser describes as a hardworking 16-year-old with some special needs, had already missed eight weeks of school in Prince George's County when he arrived at Eastern Point. Social workers in Prince George's had not been able to enroll him because of missing records. As days passed and Eastern Point staff members put out calls to various social service and school officials, the boy sat at the home, growing more and more dejected, Fraser said.
"Every day I'd come in and he'd ask, 'When do I start school?'
"I'd tell him, 'We're working on it.' "
The records were finally transferred to Anne Arundel County. Yet more time passed while school officials debated over which high school he should attend, she said.
"It's a public school. The doors should be wide open."
The schools, too, have their struggles when they receive new children in the state's care, said Cheryl Shauck, who works for the Anne Arundel County school district. She is working now on placing a boy who has been in a juvenile justice facility for eight months. In such a case, the process of obtaining records can be challenging. Assessing the sometimes complex needs of the child also can take time.
"These kids have been shifted so much. I'd hate to place them in the wrong school," she said. "We look at the needs of the student and try to create the best match."
The boy from Eastern Point finally entered South River High School this spring. He seems to be thriving, Fraser said. "It's a sad story," she added, "and it's not over."
State Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D) said she believes that an inefficient and outdated system of school records transfers has greatly affected her Baltimore County district, which she said has more group homes than any other in the state.
The problem, she said, not only holds the children back but also drags down performance on schoolwide achievement tests.
In this year's legislative session, Kelley pushed for a new law, which will take effect July 1, to expedite the transfer of school records for children in the state's care. Regulations already require caseworkers to enroll foster children within five days, and the new law requires schools to act just as quickly in providing records. The law also allows the electronic transfer of records, previously prohibited.
Even with the new law, problems remain. Chief among them is the transience of Maryland's 11,000 foster children, who often move among group homes, private homes and juvenile justice placements.
"Most of us believe they move far too often and that many moves shouldn't be necessary," said James P. McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, an association of 55 private-sector agencies.
The transience points to many issues interwoven into foster children's plight, including a failure by the state to properly assess their needs, a shortage of skilled social workers and good homes, and a lack of support for foster parents trying to cope with sometimes deeply troubled children, he said.
In Maryland, the median length of stay in out-of-home care is almost three years, and most children are in at least two different settings during that time.
One-third of the children experience three or more placements. In nearly all cases, changing homes means changing schools, according to the nonprofit Baltimore-based Public Justice Center. Each transfer adds stress to the lives of children, said Wendy Hess, a lawyer at the center.
"We hope the state will protect children that have to be moved, but we hope they don't have to be moved at all," Hess said.
Kelley Page, the teenager who endured five high schools before graduating, submitted written testimony in support of Sen. Kelley's bill, said she hopes the measure helps other young people finish school.
She is still in the foster care system. Since she graduated last year, she has been working hard. She rises before dawn to work as a cook at a Baltimore County snack bar called the Soda Pop Shop. In the afternoons and evenings, she holds down a second job as a clerk at Home Depot. She just bought herself a used car.
Between jobs, she has been fitting in classes at Community College of Baltimore County, Essex. This summer, she is tackling biology. Her dream is to become a registered nurse.
"I've always liked helping people, fixing people," she explained quietly. "I try to make things better."