Last week, for the first time in history, California released statewide data on the educational outcomes of students in foster care.
Until now, the state has not published school data on the approximately 70,000 foster children in California’s children separately from other children.
But as a requirement of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, the California Department of Education has just published data on the number of foster students at the county, district and school levels, as well as their performance on Common Core aligned tests.
In the coming months, the department will release figures on suspensions and expulsion of foster students, graduation rates and their movement from one school to another.
This is a big moment for California’s foster youth. The achievement gap for students in foster care is no longer invisible. We have a baseline. We can track educational progress for foster youth, measure the impact of our collective efforts to close the achievement gap between them and other students and calibrate those efforts to ensure we’re supporting this amazing group of young people as effectively as possible.
While the stark reality of this achievement gap may be a surprise to many, it confirms what the foster youth advocacy community has known for some time: Without targeted, individualized, whole-child support for students in foster care and true collaboration between the various systems that serve them, foster youth are prevented from reaching their full academic potential.
As an organization deeply committed to helping foster youth receive the education they deserve, we are all too familiar with the reasons foster youth struggle in school. We observe how untreated trauma is addressed not with school-based mental health services, but with suspensions and expulsions.
We meet countless elementary students who have already faced multiple school changes after disruptions in their foster home placements. We hear from high school youth who have endured multiple mid-semester school changes, failed to receive credit for their hard work in previous schools and are woefully behind their classmates — through no fault of their own. We hear, several times over, the degree to which adults hold heartbreakingly low expectations for their futures.
Fortunately, California is well positioned to make significant strides in improving educational outcomes for foster youth. The state has long been a national leader in this area. In 2013, with the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula, we became the first state in the country to formally include foster youth in education reform, supporting and amplifying the critical role that school districts play in addressing the educational needs of foster youth. School districts get additional funds based on the number of foster children in their classrooms.
But much more must be done to ensure that young people in foster care receive the attention and support they need to succeed in school. There must be a new focus and commitment that reaches vertically throughout all levels of the education system, and horizontally across the multiple systems that serve foster youth:
- School districts, through their Local Control and Accountability Plans, can embrace their mandate to engage the community in an effort to learn about the needs of their foster youth, then increase and improve services to those students.
- County offices of education have a unique role to play in identifying opportunities to coordinate services to foster youth and supporting school districts’ efforts to serve foster youth.
- The California Department of Education and California Collaborative for Educational Excellence have an opportunity to provide school districts and County Offices of Education with targeted technical assistance focused on students in foster care.
- Child welfare agencies, behavioral health agencies and the courts must all recognize the importance of educational achievement in the lives of foster youth and take a coordinated approach to removing systemic barriers to educational success.
Everyone has a role to play, and no one agency or system can make progress alone. This data is an important step, and one that we hope builds a resounding call to action: We can, must and will do better.
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