Foster youth switch schools at huge rate

September 25, 2013

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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. 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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