Foster youth switch schools at huge rate

It’s well known that foster youth change schools more frequently than other students, but a new study using pioneering data analysis shows foster youth are more than twice as likely to switch schools as their classmates.

Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research and at the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, a nonprofit based in Encinitas, found that about 95 percent of foster youth changed schools the first year they were placed in care compared to 37 percent to 38 percent of students in a comparison group.

That figure surprised attorney Jesse Hahnel, director of foster youth programs at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland.

“You know that (foster youth) move, but, my God, I didn’t know that they move that much,” Hahnel said. “There’s a plethora of research pointing to the fact that every time a student transfers they lose six months of learning and are less likely to graduate from high school.”

Less than half of California foster youth graduate from high school or earn a GED; 8 percentage points less than students not in foster care but similar in most other ways, including race/ethnicity, English learner status, family income, gender, academic achievement, and school or district academic ranking. Source: Stuart Foundation.

Less than half of California foster youth graduate from high school or earn a GED. Source: Stuart Foundation.

There are about 55,000 foster youth in California; 80 percent of them are school age. (Studies have also shown that less than 80 percent of them are school age.) Researchers have also found that less than half of them complete high school.

In compiling the data on foster youth stability, researchers followed students in grades 3 to 8 for three years, beginning in the 2003-04 school year. It’s only the second longitudinal study of its kind, made possible by a project that linked two databases, the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success and the Child Welfare Services Case Management System. Students’ identities were encrypted so their privacy was not compromised during the research.

The foster students and a comparison group were matched by grade level, school year, gender, ethnicity, English learner status, participation in the National School Lunch Program, disability, district or school, state rank and baseline level on California standardized tests. The only difference was that students in the comparison group were not in foster care.

“The really big thing for us is that you can learn more about the foster youth through this combining of massive databases because it shed new light,” said Dana Quittner, a spokesperson for the Institute for Evidence-Based Change.

Michelle Lustig, director of the foster youth services program at the San Diego County Office of Education, said one finding in the report “jumped out at” her, and she’s already pondering what to do about it.

While highlighting how frequently foster youth change schools, the study, paradoxically, raised a significant caveat regarding how many times students switch schools. Researchers found that in cases where foster youth are enrolled in high-poverty or low-performing schools, based on their statewide academic performance ranking, it’s probably better to move them. More than 50 percent of the students fell into that category.

Before reading the report, Lustig said she and her staff never even considered the variability of school quality when thinking about the best interests of the child.

“I had to sit down and say, we probably want to look at this,” she recalled. “Staying in the wrong school could be detrimental.”

Lustig met with her manager, sent a note out to her entire staff and contacted the California Foster Youth Education Task Force and asked them to forward the study to all the members.

She said this is a case where research provided information they could use to immediately improve the students’ circumstances.

That helps counterbalance what educators can’t do for students in foster care. The report found that even before kids are placed in foster care, their life circumstances already put them at risk for doing poorly in school. Foster youth generally are participants in the National School Lunch Program and others are English learners, which the report found are “better predictors of academic performance over time” than being removed from homes for abuse or neglect.

Nearly 80 percent of students in the study who scored far below basic on the California Standards Tests participated in the National School Lunch Program. Foster youth in those groups were more likely to score “far below basic” on the California Standards Tests in math and English language arts. Among students who scored in the proficient range, 68 to 71 percent were in the lunch program.

The study’s authors are planning more research to refine the measures of school quality and how it affects academic achievement for foster youth. They’re also urging other states to replicate California’s model.

“This California study is a strong indicator of what can be accomplished through linking diverse data bases,” said Brad Phillips, president of the Institute for Evidence-Based Research. He said it could be used “to explore the combination of social services and education data to improve the knowledge base concerning foster youth, the challenges facing them, and the opportunities to address them.”

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9 Responses to “Foster youth switch schools at huge rate”

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  1. Wendy Lestina on Sep 25, 2013 at 7:38 am09/25/2013 7:38 am

    • 000

    Under federal law, there is “categorical eligibility” for foster children; in other words, they automatically qualify for the free lunch program. There is no relevance to the income of the foster parents. (Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010).

  2. el on Sep 25, 2013 at 6:56 am09/25/2013 6:56 am

    • 000

    Weird question: how is eligibility for the school lunch program determined for foster youth? Is it based on the finances of the host family? If so, one would expect that this status would vary over time, that you couldn’t assign as a binary variable “in school lunch program”.


    • navigio on Sep 25, 2013 at 7:41 am09/25/2013 7:41 am

      • 000

      Its not a weird question, I think the terminology is used confusingly here. From my understanding, foster youth are eligible for the free lunch program independent of income level.

      • el on Sep 25, 2013 at 8:36 am09/25/2013 8:36 am

        • 000

        That’s what I expected, so the 68-71 percent number really jumped out as odd.

    • Kathryn Baron on Sep 25, 2013 at 10:50 am09/25/2013 10:50 am

      • 000

      Just got off the phone with the Institute for Evidence-Based Change. What researchers did is look at how many foster youth participated in the National School Lunch Program the year before they entered foster care. This information is collected in Cal-PASS. That information became the baseline for each grade level cohort of students.

      When Cal-PASS and the Child Welfare Services/Case Management System were linked, researchers could determine how many foster youth had been on the lunch program in the prior year.

      As Wendy notes in her comment, once in foster care, all youth are immediately eligible for the lunch program.

      • el on Sep 25, 2013 at 2:07 pm09/25/2013 2:07 pm

        • 000

        Aha, interesting; thank you for the clarification.

        So then the next question I’d ask is to wonder if they validated those numbers, especially for older kids. IE, is that an accurate proxy for SED for this population, who might be expected to have parents that are mmm, let’s go with, “less apt to fill out invasive paperwork for the benefit of their kids” than perhaps parents whose kids were not in the foster care system the subsequent year?

        • Kathryn Baron on Sep 25, 2013 at 3:47 pm09/25/2013 3:47 pm

          • 000

          I’ve forwarded your question to the IEBC.

          • Kathy Baron on Sep 26, 2013 at 7:15 am09/26/2013 7:15 am

            • 000

            The question is about how can any foster youth not be eligible for Free and reduced price lunch, because technically they should all be eligible as a function of being a foster youth. The answer is related to how we coded yes/no for free lunch.


            Here is the more detailed response to your question about free lunch from IEBC.

            The way we did our study assigned the free and reduced price lunch flag to a student based upon their baseline year (the year before they entered foster care). “The first sample includes foster youth closely matched to non-foster students on characteristics from the year prior to entrance into foster care placement.”

            …you can also see in the appendix:

            “As a proxy for socio-economic status, participation in the National School Lunch Program (i.e., receiving free or reduced-price lunch) is included. Eligibility for the program is based on the official federal poverty guidelines. To qualify, family income must be at or below 185% of the current poverty guideline. Participation is based on baseline year (i.e., for the 2nd grade cohort, NSLP status in 2nd grade is used).”

            In this study, even at baseline, 75-84% of foster youth were eligible for free lunch.

            • el on Sep 26, 2013 at 9:36 am09/26/2013 9:36 am

              • 000

              Thank you so much for taking the time to follow up on my pesky, technical question. I appreciate the chance to learn more about foster youth and how we can serve them better.

              I am gobsmacked, actually, at the suggestion that we have 20% of foster kids coming from families with incomes too high to qualify for free or reduced lunch, given that we have whole school districts with lower rates than that.

              I would still caution those authors that there are anecdotally many households whose income is at or below 185% who do not participate in the FRL program for whatever reason.

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