Red Light, Green Light:
Youth Use Innovative Presentation for Children’s Justice
Education Forum

In Iowa, less than 75% of youth who are in foster care at age 17 earn their high school diploma or equivalent by the time they are 19.

Five members of the Youth Advocacy Team (YAT) shared their perspectives on how to improve high school graduation rates and other educational outcomes with child welfare professionals, juvenile court officials, and educators at an Education Forum held in May 2015.

The young people acted out a modified version of the children’s game of “Red Light, Green Light” to creatively depict what practices support student success in school and what stops them in their tracks or sets them back.

Eddye Vanderkwaak, serving as game show host, explained that “Trying to get through school is a lot like playing the game Red Light, Green Light. There are times when people around you are really supportive and helpful—people who really want and expect you to succeed in school. That’s when we have a green light. But there are also things that get in the way of our making progress – things that are red lights and stop our progress.”

Youth Advocacy Team members Mark Woodward, Jessica W., Jake Carmi, and Kodi Baughman acted as contestants in the Red Light, Green Light game. When prompted with a factor that helped them reach their education goals, members took a step forward toward the finish line of high school graduation. When that factor wasn’t present, or created a barrier to their education progress, the members stepped backward.

As they played the game, the young people drew from their real life experiences to discuss the education challenges they encountered while in foster care and the things that helped them reach their education goals. Kodi, for example, shared that being a member of his high school football team and being in involved in other extra-curricular activities kept him motivated to do well in school. His football coach was instrumental in his success. Mark, on the other hand, shared that most of the adults that should have been supporting his education simply gave up on him. He admitted that his own behaviors made him difficult to deal with, but he still felt cheated by the system.

After the presentation the young people responded to questions from the audience. They received overwhelmingly positive response from the audience of judges, attorneys, child welfare and juvenile justice professionals, and educators, who gave the young people a standing ovation.

“The visual separation between the young people who had educational supports and opportunities from those who didn’t was a powerful demonstration of the importance of those supports and opportunities for all students,” commented Tracey Boxx-Vass, Executive Director of American Home Finding Association in Ottumwa.

Boxx-Vass continued, “It was one of the most effective youth presentations I’ve ever seen.”

To supplement the information shared by the five YAT members who presented in person at the Children’s Justice Educational Forum, the Youth Policy Institute of Iowa requested AMP facilitators to poll AMP members about their education experiences while involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system. The results (see sidebar) of this informal poll were shared at the Forum as part of the YAT presentation.

Results of a poll of 98 AMP members on their educational experiences while in foster care demonstrates:

76% had someone in their school (a teacher, coach, or other staff person) who made a special effort to help them through school.

34% had lost credits or had to repeat a class because of being in foster care.

40% gave up an extra-curricular activity because of being in foster care; 35% weren’t involved in extra-curricular activities at all.

60% believe that their judge cares about how they are doing in school and wants them to succeed.

51% have a DHS worker or JCO who is supportive and interested in helping them achieve their education goals.

48% feel like their attorney or GAL cares about and supports their education goals.

44% either had not graduated from school on time or are not on track to graduate with their class.

85% want to go to college!