Opinion > Commentary

Time for a statewide database to better serve foster youth


David W. Gordon

David Gordon

California has been a national leader in passing state legislation to improve educational outcomes for foster youth and in recognizing the importance of sharing education data. Now, with the passage of the federal Uninterrupted Scholars Act and Governor Brown’s focus on the education needs of foster youth, the time is right for California to support the use of a statewide foster youth education database. We are in a unique position to serve more foster youth and literally save lives in the process.

Collaboration and data sharing is what the California Legislature had in mind when it passed the landmark Assembly Bill 490 (AB 490), also known as the Educational Rights and Stability for Foster Youth Act, in 2003. The bill authorizes the release of educational records to child welfare workers for purposes of educational case management. Unfortunately, the ensuing debate as to whether data sharing provisions in the bill conflicted with federal law (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) resulted in compliance that varied from county to county. That led to delays and, in some cases, refusals to share data needed to improve the educational outcomes for foster children.

Three years prior to the passage of AB 490, the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) recognized the need for this type of collaboration and worked with representatives from local school districts, Child Welfare, and Probation to create a database system that could store a child’s school placement history and other basic academic information. This way, when a foster child moved from one Sacramento County school district to another (a frequent occurrence), the receiving school district could access the student’s records through the database, eliminating enrollment delays and ensuring that students were placed in the appropriate courses. The resulting SCOE Foster Focus database debuted in 2000 and has since been enhanced and expanded to include grades, attendance, test scores and other academic information.

Today, Foster Focus houses education records for more than 12,000 foster youth and is used by educators and social workers in 25 California counties. While that is a sign of progress, the fact remains there are more than 40,000 foster youth in the state whose education records are not in a linked database system. Foster Focus ensures that when a foster youth arrives in a new school he or she is placed in the correct courses, is provided all necessary academic supports, and receives all previously earned credits. Recent programming upgrades, generously funded by the Stuart Foundation, allow school districts to electronically link and upload information daily into Foster Focus ensuring social workers have access to current and comprehensive student data. The system has multiple layers of extensive safeguards to protect children’s privacy. In addition to password protection and encryption, the number of authorized users is limited. They must sign confidentiality agreements and when using Foster Focus can be identified down to the day, minute and section of the system they have viewed.

Foster Focus is the only foster youth education database in California being used by multiple counties. It is fully developed, has the capacity to serve the entire state and could be implemented quickly and easily.

The president’s signing of the Uninterrupted Scholars Act into law will provide much needed clarity and allow educators and social workers to work collaboratively and expediently to address the educational needs of foster youth. With this renewed focus on serving foster youth, now is the time to expand a statewide system in the best interest of so many underserved children in California.

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David W. Gordon serves as superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education. Previously he was superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District. He has also served on numerous commissions, committees and boards, including the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2001-2003), the National Assessment Governing Board (2003-2011) and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

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