California is on the leading edge of an innovative effort to give foster children a fighting chance in school.
A new national initiative to provide a trained adult to act as an education advocate for every foster child in the nation was recently launched in Santa Cruz County, which is piloting the program in California.
“We want to ensure that each foster child has an educational champion, much like an active parent would be,” said Jesse Hahnel, director of FosterEd, which is implementing the education advocacy program. FosterEd is an independent initiative of the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law.
Foster children often move from school to school, sometimes even changing school districts multiple times while in foster care. Their lives have been disrupted, and it is often difficult for them to focus on their studies. Data show that foster children are twice as likely as their counterparts to be suspended and four times more likely to be expelled. Only 45 percent of foster youth graduate from high school by age 18, according to national statistics.
California, which has about 42,000 foster children, is the second state in the nation to embrace the program. FosterEd first implemented its model initiative in Indiana, where it has helped keep foster youth in school. Arizona will soon roll out its version of the program.
Although it appears counter-intuitiive, the biological parent is typically the person trained to be an educational champion despite this instability. In the tumultuous life of a foster child, the biological parent is usually the only constant.
“We need to build the capacity of some adult in the child’s life who will be in the child’s life long term,” Hahnel said. “Most biological parents are already seeing a therapist or taking parenting classes to get their kid back. We don’t want to introduce a new person.”
In cases where a parent is not capable of providing such support, a grandparent, aunt or uncle, foster parent, or volunteer community member will take on the responsibility, he said.
In Santa Cruz County, where the California program launched Feb. 22, three liaisons from Foster Youth Services will identify, support and train education advocates for the approximately 250 foster kids in the county.
One of the liaisons is Lisa O’Connor, a former foster youth from Los Angeles, who spoke at the FosterEd launch at the Watsonville Courthouse near Santa Cruz. She had support from her foster parents and eventually enrolled at University of California, Santa Cruz. But when she left her foster home for college as an emancipated 18-year old, she set off alone, driving north in her old car with all her belongings. No parents accompanied her to check out her dormitory and hug her goodbye.
“I started uncontrollably sobbing when I drove away,” she said. “I was sad to leave my friends and afraid. In the end, I felt alone.”
Understanding the importance of school is what kept her going. “Public education was my path out of my previous life,” she said. “There is something out there that is bigger than yourself. Education can take you there.”
Learning the basics
To participate in the program, potential educational champions are asked a series of questions to determine their attitude toward school and their child’s capabilities, Hahnel said. Based on the answers, an intervention program is then developed.
The training is fairly straightforward and encourages practices that most well-educated parents do almost without thinking to support their children in school. The advocates are taught to regularly ask their children what they learned in school that day and check if they have completed their homework assignments. The champion needs to expect the child to do well in school and to communicate that school is important. Advocates learn how to talk to their child’s teacher, understand a report card, and provide a quiet space to do homework.
“The things most closely coordinated to educational success are things that are really easy,” Hahnel said.
In Santa Cruz County, the initiative has been embraced by the juvenile court, county office of education, Cabrillo College, school districts, city leaders, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children, and the Parents Center, a local nonprofit that provides counseling for parents and children.
On a statewide level, Hahnel plans to work with county offices of education and Foster Youth Services, a state program that provides grants to county offices and a few school districts to support foster youth.
In the first implementation of the program statewide, FosterEd on April 11 held two, three-hour training sessions for 75 instructional specialists on how to teach foster parents to be education advocates for their foster children. These specialists, who are employed by community colleges, provide 30 hours of training for foster parents on how to care for and support foster children in their home.
The goal of the FosterEd educational champion initiative is to have the state eventually make it part of its support system for foster youth. The program went statewide in Indiana in August 2012 and is now part of the state’s child welfare system, which provides services for about 10,000 foster children each year. It too began with a pilot project in one county, Marion County, in September 2011 before expanding statewide.
In Indiana, newly trained liaisons also identified 748 children with the most acute unmet educational needs, according to the first draft of an independent evaluation of the program provided to EdSource by Hahnel. FosterEd: Indiana: Evaluation and Recommendations, written in December 2012 by evaluator Stephanie Yoder, said the liaisons were able to resolve 89 percent of the educational issues faced by those children and that 80 percent of the children had all of their educational needs met.
Anita Silverman, director of education for the Indiana Department of Child Services, said the program has helped foster students – particularly those who also have learning disabilities – avoid expulsions and suspensions.
“They’re staying in school,” Silverman said. “That’s huge. A lot of them have a much more stable school environment. We help the child feel safe at school and help the parents feel safe at school.”
As important, she said, is the positive change she has seen in how schools view children that have been in the child welfare system. Some school administrators used to assume they were “throw-away kids,” she said. “They used to think, if we suspend them, who’s going to notice?”