State, districts struggle to support foster youth

September 15, 2014

California Youth Connection facilitators prepare for a day of lobbying legislators on the behalf of foster students.

California’s bold initiative to provide extra support for foster youth in school is proving difficult for most districts to implement, advocates say.

Under the Local Control Funding Formula, lawmakers recognized that foster youth had special needs by creating a separate subgroup so they could receive targeted services. However, the advocates point to a number of obstacles to attaining that goal, including the need to inform schools about which of their students are in foster care. Even though the school year has begun, the state has yet to provide districts with the names of their foster students. (See sidebar.)

Advocates also say the state is providing little support – such as sample programs and expert advice – to help districts understand the special challenges faced by the nearly 40,000 foster youth in California.

In addition, they say that even though districts are required under the new school finance system to set goals and provide extra support for foster youth, a recent change by the State Board of Education in the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) template no longer encourages districts to differentiate between foster youth and other low-income youth. The July version of the template included breakout sections for reporting specific supports the district was providing for each subgroup of students. That was replaced in September by a list of boxes to check.

“We want to divorce ourselves from other low-income students,” said Vanessa Hernandez of California Youth Connection. “We have unique needs different from low-income students.”

“The check box approach is less likely to prompt and encourage school districts to identify targeted actions, services and related expenditures to meet the unique needs of foster youth,” said Tim Morrison, a senior policy associate with Children Now. Advocates’ initial reviews of district accountability plans also show that many districts are either ignoring this new subgroup or treating foster students the same as other low-income students. Advocates say the distinction between the two groups of students is important.

“We want to divorce ourselves from other low-income students,” said Vanessa Hernandez, policy coordinator for California Youth Connection, an organization of current and former foster youth. “We have unique needs different from low-income students.”

Unlike most other low-income students, foster youth often move from home to home and attend multiple schools.

Mariah, 15, a sophomore from Campbell, west of San Jose, said if foster parents no longer want to care for a youth, the student receives a seven-day notice to move out. That can mean moving to a different neighborhood with a different school.

When foster students get these notices, “we feel that they don’t want us anymore and it makes us depressed,” Mariah said. “It is difficult for us to balance those kinds of feelings with focusing in class.”

Foster youth also miss school because of court hearings, meetings with social workers and district attorneys, or court-ordered therapy sessions.

“There’s a lot of pressure on us to make up all our work,” said Kayla, 17, a foster student from Stanislaus County. “It’s not our fault that we are taken out of school.”

District accountability plans are not taking into account these special needs, said David Sapp, the director of education for the ACLU of Southern California. The ACLU reviewed 100 of about 1,000 district plans and found that the vast majority did not have a specific goal or specific service for the foster youth subgroup, particularly at the school level, he said.

In a California Department of Education survey, 17 state Foster Youth Services coordinators, who provide support to foster youth in their counties, reported a variety of reasons why districts did not include specific goals and support services in their accountability plans. Those reasons included not believing that foster youth needed “unique or additional services or supports” and not understanding what foster youth might need.

When this information was presented at a recent State Board of Education meeting, the advocates got some pushback from board member Patricia Rucker. “We need to have another conversation (with districts) rather than slamming them about what they forgot to write about,” she said.

Jesse Hahnel, FosterEd director for the National Center for Youth Law, agrees that districts need more time and more help to develop supports for students they never had to consider as a subgroup before. The state department of education should provide districts with resources, tools and expert assistance so they can understand the most common challenges facing foster youth and implement the most promising programs, he said. He also suggested that at least one member of the State Board of Education should have expertise in this area.

Meanwhile, advocates suggest two main strategies for districts:

Advocates say that some districts – such as Los Angeles Unified and Poway Unified, near San Diego – can serve as models.

Los Angeles Unified, which has allocated $11 million to support about 8,400 foster students, has created a data system in partnership with the county Department of Children and Family Services for students in its district. The system matches data from the two organizations so social workers and attorneys can keep up to date on the educational progress of their foster youth. Every Saturday, L.A. Unified updates the data, including attendance and grades, said Debra Duardo, executive director of Student Health and Human Services for the district.

The district is also in the process of hiring 55 counselors who are dedicated to foster youth. In each of the next two years, the district plans to add 10 additional counselors.

Having counselors who can train teachers and administrators in how to respond to foster students is important, advocates say, because small things, such as touching the shoulder of a student who has been physically abused, can trigger an involuntary, violent response.

The counselors talk to students “about the barriers they face, what are their dreams and hopes,” Duardo said. “Then they come up with a plan.”

“Having someone at the school site will make a huge difference for foster kids,” said La Shona Jenkins of L.A. Unified. “The counselor is the person who can calm them down and make sure the issue is resolved right away, preventing suspensions and students from dropping out.”

In elementary school, the counselors focus on attendance, behavior and work habits. By high school, the plan emphasizes the path to graduation.

Last year, L.A. Unified had only three counselors dedicated to foster youth, including La Shona Jenkins, who currently is the coordinator for the district’s foster youth program. She is part of an infrastructure the district has created to support the on-site counselors.

“Having someone at the school site will make a huge difference for foster kids,” Jenkins said. “The counselor is the person who can calm them down and make sure the issue is resolved right away, preventing suspensions and students from dropping out.”

Unlike L.A. Unified, Poway Unified serves only about 25 to 35 foster youth even though it is one of the largest districts in the state. Poway has allocated $44,000 that will be spent primarily on training and counseling support.

Dawn Kastner, director of Learning Support Services, developed the foster student accountability plan for the district. She said she attended meetings where students, social workers, foster parents, education advocates and others talked about what was needed.

“One thing I was hearing pretty loud and clear is that these kids have all these people involved in their life who don’t necessarily ever meet with each other,” she said.

In Poway, the school counselor or a designated teacher on each campus will hold a meeting with the other adults involved in the student’s life to coordinate services, Kastner said.

At the first “welcoming meeting” with each foster youth, the counselor will connect the student to extracurricular activities based on the student’s interests. The counselor will be the student’s “touch point,” discreetly but regularly checking in with the youth.

“Students will know they have someone on campus who really, really cares about them,” Kastner said.

In addition, counselors, teachers and administrators in the district will be receiving training in understanding the trauma these students have experienced and will also learn the proper protocol for handling privacy and legal issues related to foster youth.

Having caring adults at the school and a specific on-site person to go to makes a huge difference, said Yoselin Cabral, a former foster student who is a junior at Fresno State University.

“It’s important for students to have someone to be accountable to,” she said. “Otherwise, they think if they don’t finish school, no one is going to care.”


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