Under the state’s new school finance law, districts for the first time will receive additional funds based on the number of foster students enrolled in their schools. The law also requires that, by July, districts set academic goals for those students. But just identifying them by then is a problem.
With only about 43,000 foster students scattered throughout the state, their numbers within a district or school are typically small. But this subgroup is consistently among the lowest performing in math and English and has the highest dropout rates, according to a recent WestEd report, The Invisible Achievement Gap.
Because they are academically at-risk, foster students are now identified as one of three high-needs student groups for whom districts will receive additional funds under the Local Control Funding Formula. The other two groups – low-income students and English learners – are substantially larger, and districts have had targeted funding and programs for them in the past. But understanding who their foster students are and developing programs that specifically address their needs is a new concept for most districts.
Currently, the California Department of Education is attempting to count foster students by comparing its foster student enrollment data with Department of Social Services data on foster youth. But the definition of foster children differs between the two departments, making it difficult to account for all of them. For example, the California Department of Education’s definition of a foster child is one who is being monitored by the court system, including those children who are living with their parents. The Department of Social Services, on the other hand, does not count foster students who are living with their parents.
Randy Bonnell, an administrator with the California Department of Education, said last week that he had an 86.6 percent match between the two systems. Mismatches will have to be investigated on an individual basis in the next couple of weeks, he said, adding that the state still needs an effective way to track foster students who have gotten in trouble with the law and are on probation.
The department expects to be able to determine how many foster students each district is serving in time for districts to receive supplemental funds for those students in their 2014-15 budgets. But the department won’t have student names until the fall, making it difficult for districts to determine how to meet those students needs by July, when the accountability plan must be done. The department is having difficulty obtaining names partly because of foster students’ mobility.
Children often go in and out of foster care or move from home to home. This is particularly an issue for older youth.
Michael S., 17, who attended a recent Foster Youth Education Summit in Sacramento, said he entered foster care at the age of 4. He now lives in a group home and attends Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, his ninth high school. He has been at Monroe for a month.
“As I grew older, I became harder to control,” admits the high school junior. “But I’m growing out of it.”
Often when Michael has asserted his legal right to continue in the same high school and not be transferred, the group home he was living in would give him a seven-day eviction notice – the minimum required by law – rather than arrange transportation, said his attorney, Paige Fern, from Alliance for Children’s Rights. Fern said that staying in the same school is a “huge problem” for foster students statewide, partly because they aren’t aware they have this right and the law is rarely invoked on their behalf.
By law, social workers have to consider foster children’s need to have school stability, but many do not, Fern said. “Their biggest priority is to find a placement within seven days.”
This makes tracking the students that much more difficult and highlights the need for weekly rather than annual accounting of foster youth enrollment in schools.
Paula Mishima, an educational administrator from the California Department of Education, said the state plans to use the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, or CALPADS, to provide weekly data on the state’s foster children to help schools keep track of them.
“We can make a match on a one-time basis,” she said. “But we need to automate the process so that CALPADS picks up the information on a weekly basis. That is done through programming – a lot of technical work.”
The earliest that information will be available is fall 2014, she said. In the meantime, many county offices of education have been reaching out to school districts to try to aid them in the process.
Both the Sacramento County and San Diego County offices of education already have systems in place to help districts identify foster students.
Michelle Lustig, coordinator of Foster Youth Services for the San Diego County Office of Education, said her county has had a “homegrown” system in place since 2006 to identify foster youth. The county office collects weekly data from Child Welfare Services and the probation department, and gets a daily feed from juvenile court.
However, if a student comes from another county, the data exchange is “hit-or-miss,” Lustig said, depending on the county. “We would love to get that information from CALPADS.”
Lustig also emphasized the need to train teachers and administrators about how to use the information they will now receive – many for the first time – about foster children, such as their unstable home environments and their experiences with domestic violence, abuse and neglect.
“If we’re not telling them what that child is bringing to that seat, then we’re playing dirty pool with them,” she said. “But at the same time we need to train teachers in what it means to be a child in foster care.”