When Summerville High School teacher Karen Parker met RJ Sloke in 2006, she saw a sad, hungry boy who was lost in the foster care system.
Six years later, Sloke, 22, is the poster child for the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, or USA, which was signed by President Barack Obama on Monday. The law allows social workers and other child welfare agencies access to students’ educational records.
“I’m so proud of him, to be a part of this law to help make a difference in future foster kids’ lives,” Parker said Tuesday. “Whoever would have thought that a boy from Summerville would have an impact on a federal law?”
Sloke, at times homeless or living in maximum-security group homes, attended 12 different high schools.
“When I entered my 11th high school, I didn’t have much of a hope of graduating,” he said. “I was just waiting for emancipation at age 18, until I met Karen Parker. She started advocating on my behalf and … that gave me momentum and empowered me to do better.”
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents nearly everyone but parents of minors from having access to their school records. Since Sloke was in foster care, his records often didn’t travel to new homes with him, causing him to repeat courses. He went to ninth grade three times.
After Parker helped piece together Sloke’s educational journey, he graduated from Westside High School in Anderson at age 19.
“RJ had been in so many schools that he didn’t even know what schools he’d been in,” said Parker. “He would go to school a month here and a month there and every time he switched schools, he had to start over.”
Last summer, Sloke participated in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program in Washington, D.C., as an intern with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and shared his story.
“This is a great example of what we were hoping and praying for when we instituted this program,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La. “RJ said, ‘This is not working for me and this is why’ and we got right on it.”
Tuesday, Sloke joined Landrieu; Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth; and Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary George Sheldon in a press conference touting the new law.
“Some of these privacy laws do nothing but harm children,” Landrieu said. “I know they are meant to help them, but are we accomplishing that?”
Sheldon called the law “one of the single most significant things we can do to improve the lives of children in foster care.”
“The period of time that a child is in care, the state is the parent of that child,” he said. “I think that this … will really make a huge difference in making sure the children in the foster-care system stay on grade, that they get the educational opportunities that every other child demands.”
The bipartisan legislation was sponsored by Sens. Landrieu, Blunt and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. The companion bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Bass, Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
Sloke is in the Army Reserve and finishing his undergraduate degree at George Mason University while working for Landrieu. He hopes to go to law school and plans to run for Congress. “I feel like all the pain and suffering I went through transferring all those schools wasn’t for nothing,” he told the Chronicle of Social Change. “Now that USA is passed, foster youth have a much better shot at graduating high school, thus helping them to become more self-sufficient in their lives.”