As districts set their goals for the next school year and allocate funding under the new California school finance system, they have to consider for the first time a small, highly at-risk subset of students: youth in foster care.
Under the new Local Control Funding Formula, districts must develop Local Control and Accountability (LCAP) plans, and they must give particular consideration to the needs of English learners, students from low-income families, and students in foster care.
Districts are used to considering the challenges faced by low-income students and English learners, said Teri Burns, senior director of policy and programs for the California School Boards Association. But “the area of foster youth is a new one for most districts,” she said. “It’s not one where districts have taken real direct action in the past.”
Determining how to meet the needs of these highly mobile students – who account for only about 42,000 of California’s 6.2 million students and whose test scores and graduation rates are among the lowest of any subgroup of students – is proving to be a challenge for many districts.
To help districts, a coalition of advocates has put together a sample Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) for foster youth. The California School Boards Association emailed a copy to all its members, Burns said, adding that it is a good starting point as districts begin to look at best practices for supporting foster youth.
The sample plan calls on districts to get baseline data to identify their foster youth, then set the goal of closing the achievement gap between foster students and the general student population by 10 percent a year. The plan also recommends providing staff dedicated to the needs of foster students.
“If they don’t do anything else, districts need to have foster youth counselors who are working to identify the strengths and needs of foster children and ensuring they have educational opportunities,” said Jesse Hahnel, who helped develop the sample LCAP and is director of foster youth programs at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland.
Former foster youth know what is needed
Districts are expected to reach out to parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large when they create their accountability plans. But effective outreach to develop the foster youth component is more complicated. Unlike most students who can be represented by their parents, foster youth often move from home to home or live in group homes.
“We’ve gone through life experiences that other kids don’t go through,” said Yoselin Cabral, a student at Cal State Fresno and a former foster youth. “We’re not worried about our clothes or even school. We worried about where we’re going to be living the next day.”
Districts need to reach out to students’ foster parents, attorneys, social workers, educational advocates and mental health counselors, advocates say. Perhaps equally important, they said, is including foster students and former foster youth.
Cabral is a member of the California Youth Connection, a statewide advocacy group made up of about 500 current and former foster youth. The group is participating in district meetings and presenting the sample LCAP, sometimes with local modifications, said Vanessa Hernandez, the statewide policy coordinator for the group. Last month, members participated in a rally along with other advocacy groups in Los Angeles, urging districts to adopt the sample LCAP.
Although needs vary by district and student, California Youth Connection members say most foster students need academic guidance counselors who will ensure that they are taking the right classes, particularly in high school, and are signed up for the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. They said schools need to accept academic credits or partial credits from other schools foster students have attended.
This counselor “needs to keep them on track, not let them slack off,” said Justin Davis, a member of California Youth Connection who works at La-Z-Boy Furniture and takes classes at Long Beach City College.
Anthony Navarrete, a staff member for the youth group, is working with the San Francisco Unified and San Mateo Unified school districts on developing their accountability plans. In both districts – reflecting a statewide trend — truancy rates are high among foster students. Many have unstable home lives and are often afraid to become emotionally invested in schools where they don’t expect to stay, foster advocates say.
Making students feel like they belong and finding ways to motivate them to come to school each day “is a baseline preventive measure,” Navarrete said.
Teachers, administrators and other school staff also need to understand the trauma, including abuse and neglect, that most foster students have faced, and not respond to minor offenses by suspending or expelling students, Cabral said. “There shouldn’t be an assumption that you’re a foster youth, so you’re a troublemaker,” she said.
The goal of schools to graduate students who are college and career ready has a more urgent meaning for foster youth, who are expected to fend for themselves after they turn 18. Davis said he was homeless for a few months before finding a job and enrolling in community college. Foster youth need career-related courses in high school, help applying for scholarships and other financial aid, and access to services that will help them find housing and jobs, he said.
Districts are attempting to rise to the challenge
School officials appear to be listening. Hahnel said he feels “tremendously positive” about the efforts large and small districts are making across the state.
“I think we are going to see a critical mass of school districts which, as part of the LCAP, have meaningful goals that are specific to foster youth and help to close the achievement gap,” he said.
Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 5,000 foster students, is considering adding 72 foster youth counselors (for a total of 75) and spending an additional $8 million to help foster youth succeed, Hahnel said.
On a smaller scale, Oakland Unified wants to divide the district into three regions with a foster youth coordinator for each region who will then develop point people at each school. These point people could be social workers, teachers or administrators, said Lydell Willis, who is the district’s foster youth coordinator.
And East Side Union High School District in San Jose wants to add a social worker dedicated solely to coordinating district support for foster youth. Some districts, such as Oakland Unified and Sacramento City Unified, already have foster youth coordinators on staff.
“We’re a little bit ahead of almost everyone else,” said Aliya Holmes, coordinator of Foster Youth Services for Sacramento City Unified. “We already have counselors who work directly with foster youth at our schools.”
Still, the district is sending out a survey to find out what foster youth want, and staff are meeting with social workers, attorneys, group home representatives and foster parents. Sacramento City also plans to add a new staff position in the Foster Youth Services department. The LCAP process, said Gabe Ross, a spokesman for Sacramento City, has the added benefit of making students and schools more aware of some of the options and resources the district already has in place.
Many districts that don’t have their own employees dedicated to serving foster youth are turning to Foster Youth Services coordinators in their county offices of education. In San Diego County, coordinator Michelle Lustig offered to set up regional stakeholder meetings that included everyone involved with foster youth. “The districts were thrilled,” she said.
Oakland’s Willis said he is not concerned about the goal in the sample LCAP of closing the achievement gap for foster students by 10 percent each year. “If we get something in place, we can do a lot about these kids,” he said.
But for districts who have not yet identified their foster youth and do not already have a coordinator on staff, the 10 percent goal can seem intimidating, said Michael Paynter, the Foster Youth Services coordinator for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education.
“No one is saying these aren’t good goals,” Paynter said. “It’s a question of capacity.” Many districts, he said, don’t expect more funding for the next school year. “If they can’t commit to closing the achievement gap by 10 percent, we’re encouraging them to put 1 percent as a goal and see what happens. They need to get something in there on the right track.”
Jessica Thomas, the Foster Youth Services coordinator for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education, said many of the districts in her county have only a handful of foster youth.
“A lot of districts have small numbers, so assisting foster youth will be an additional duty for someone already working at the district,” Thomas said. Districts in her county are also talking about increased training for counselors and other support staff and stronger communications with social workers serving foster youth at the Department of Social Services.
Lustig says she sees these efforts to include foster youth in local accountability plans as an “amazing opportunity.”
“No other state has taken the step to say foster students are a significant subgroup,” she said. “It says so much about who we are as a state and how we care about our kids.”