A new report by WestEd details how foster children lag behind their peers in school.

A new report by WestEd details how foster children lag behind their peers in school.

Senate and Assembly leaders are calling on state education officials to ensure that foster children receive their fair share under the state’s new funding formula in a letter delivered to the State Board of Education and the California Department of Education last week.

“The state has a unique legal and moral responsibility to ensure their well-being, which includes supporting their educational attainment needs,” said the letter signed by legislative leaders, including Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. Advocacy groups for foster children also sent a similar letter.

Under the state’s new school finance system, districts must show how they are meeting the special needs of students who are low-income, are English learners, or are in foster care. With the new law, California became the first state to set up a mandated accountability system that recognizes the educational vulnerability of foster students, who are only about 43,000 of the state’s 6 million school children.

Districts receive extra funding for these at-risk groups, but because all foster students are also considered low-income, districts do not receive any additional funding specifically to target foster youth. This has led many districts to believe “they do not need to provide foster youth supports beyond those they will provide for low-income students generally,” said the letter, which was addressed to Board President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

The legislative leaders and advocacy groups recommend that districts be required to develop and implement an education plan for their foster youth that includes unique interventions appropriate to the students’ needs. Further, the groups called on the state board to ensure that the Local Control and Accountability Plans districts must develop to show how they are complying with the new funding law include a section specifically on how well schools are meeting the needs of foster children.

The state board is currently reviewing guidelines for the accountability plans and last week heard five hours of public testimony on the proposals.

Patterson Emesibe, 23, of Monterey, urged state officials to address the needs of foster youth. Credit: EdSource

Patterson Emesibe, 23, of Monterey, urged state officials to address the needs of foster youth when outlining spending priorities. Credit: EdSource

One of those who addressed the board was Patterson Emesibe, 23, of Monterey, a former foster youth who is now a foster youth mentor with California Youth Connection. He urged the state board to create a point person at every school who would manage resources for foster youths under the new funding law, and called for advocates for foster youth at the district level.

“Don’t forget us when it comes to changes (to the proposed regulations),” he said.

The pleas follow a recent report, The Invisible Achievement Gap, by education research agency WestEd that documents the overall dismal academic outcomes of California children in foster care, who fare worse in many measures than other at-risk students.

Report co-author Vanessa Barrat, a senior research associate at WestEd, said the findings make it clear that educators can’t solve the educational problems of foster youth by simply targeting low-income students.

“An umbrella program for low-income students will help, but it’s not enough,” she said. “Foster students have different characteristics from low-income students.”

According to the report, prepared by The Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning at WestEd and released in October, foster youth, compared to other low-income students, were:

  • Three times more likely to be African American, but less likely to be Hispanic or to be designated as English learners.
  • Classified with a disability at twice the rate as low-income students and, among students with disabilities, were about five times more likely to be classified with an emotional disturbance.
  • Older for their grade level and had higher rates of enrollment in grades 9, 10 or 11, “a likely outcome of grade retention and a risk factor for dropping out.”
  • More likely to change schools during the school year, with only about two-thirds of students in foster care attending the same school for the full school year. Less than 10 percent of students from low-income families switched schools.
  • Less likely to participate in state testing.
  • More likely to be placed in alternative schools.

Students in foster care also had the highest dropout and lowest graduation rates of all subgroups of students, the report said, and had lower scores than low-income students on state tests in English language arts and math. Only 29 percent of foster youth tested proficient or above in English compared with 40 percent of low-income students.

Barrat said she was surprised to find that foster youth were less likely to participate in state testing than any other student subgroup and the school population as a whole. That finding and similar results showing that foster youth have the highest dropout and lowest graduation rates mean “something is going on,” she said. “They seem to not be in school much more than other at-risk groups.”

Top 10 California school districts enrolling foster children. Source: The Invisible Achievement Gap, WestEd 2013

Top 10 California school districts enrolling foster children. Source: The Invisible Achievement Gap, WestEd 2013

Meeting the needs of foster children is likely to be a challenge because the students are scattered throughout the state and are much more likely to switch schools and even districts frequently. However, the report said that about 100 districts had at least 100 foster children in 2009-10, the school year data used by the researchers.

The legislative leaders and advocacy groups called on the California Department of Education to provide technical assistance to identify foster youth and create programs to meet their needs.

“… Most school districts have little experience developing or implementing programs specific to foster youth,” the letters state. “They are likely to require substantial technical assistance in this area.”

Jesse Hahnel, director of the National Center for Youth Law’s Foster Youth Education Initiative, which signed the advocacy groups’ letter, said that districts need someone at the state level they can call who is aware of the best approaches to helping foster youth.

Districts also need to work with other agencies and people involved in the foster youth’s life such as the student’s social worker, court-appointed special advocate, attorney, foster parents, biological parents, and counselors in the Foster Youth Services program run by many county offices of education, he said.

Compared with intervention programs for other students, “it’s a different process,” Hahnel said. “When districts design their goals, they have to work with other agencies; they can’t do it in isolation.”

EdSource Today Editor John Fensterwald contributed to this report. Susan Frey covers foster youth and expanded learning time. Contact her. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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