For young people in foster care, school is often the only sense of normalcy they will experience in their daily lives while shuffling through the child welfare system.
Yet, school stability can be one of the most elusive experiences for California foster youth.
Despite existing legal provisions, foster youth are still experiencing tumultuous school moves: “2, 13, 1, 2” are how many school changes youth advocates Jose, Katrina, Genesis, and Tony have experienced during their pursuit of a high-school diploma. They all now work with the California Youth Connection, a youth-led organization that advocates for policy change to help foster youth.
“I do not feel like my educational rights were ever honored. I was forced to move from my school of origin,” said Amadahy Childers, a California Youth Connection advocate who attended 11 high schools. “Because of this, my math class was changed around a lot, Algebra 2 was the biggest hurdle I needed to overcome because I kept getting placed in classes that were way ahead or behind where I personally was.”
In the 2017-18 academic year, 28 percent of youth in foster care dropped out of school and only 53 percent of the state’s eligible foster youth population graduated from high school.
Those who work closely with youth who are in foster care understand all too well that these dismal statistics do not reflect their vast potential, resilience, and capacity to succeed, heal and thrive. Despite numerous studies documenting that frequent school changes are associated with higher risk of failing a grade or dropping out, we continue to see alarming school mobility across California.
Yet, while landmark federal and state policy reforms over the last 16 years have aimed to address school stability for foster youth, too many of these children still get shuffled from school to school because of gaps in how the policies are implemented and lack of cross-system collaboration between child welfare and education agencies.
The state needs to step in and bridge those gaps.
One major policy reform, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 requires child welfare agencies to establish an educational plan which documents a foster youths’ educational setting, proximity of the foster care placement to the school of origin, and the determination for keeping the young person in the school of origin or transferring the student to the placement district. Additionally, it created the right for students to remain in their school of origin and, in cases when a school change was necessary, the right to immediate enrollment in the new school.
The 2015 federal reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA — requires that county offices of education and school districts collaborate with county child welfare agencies to ensure educational stability and address protocols for school enrollment, transfer and transportation plans. However, we lack consistent protocols for ensuring that education and child welfare communicate and collaborate.
For example, when social workers are processing a placement change, the foster youth’s Educational Rights Holders (ERH) or school staff are often not consulted nor informed. Moreover, while federal law mandates that districts complete a Best Interest Determination, or BID, to identify the best school placement for a student, these are often not completed because of lack of timely communication from child welfare on the placement changes. Often, schools are unaware of changes to a student’s placement school until another school district requests the child’s academic file.
This impedes the educational rights holder from participating in the important decision around school placement and the school from completing their required Best Interest Determination process.
The state needs to take a more active role in translating policy reform into academic achievement for its youth in care. The following steps would help:
- The state should take a stronger role in ensuring school districts, county offices of education and child welfare agencies are communicating in an efficient manner by offering joint guidance from the California Education Department and Department of Children and Family Services to ensure placement changes result in a complete Best Interest Determination process.
- Additionally, the state should ensure that county office and school district foster youth liaisons — who are responsible for foster youth education equity, processing Best Interest Determinations and supporting the educational needs of students at school districts — are notified of any proposed placement changes that could lead to removal from a youth’s school of origin, for all youth in foster care.
- Next, it is imperative to ensure that all students in foster care have an active educational rights holder and, if there isn’t one available, courts should work in partnership with stakeholders to identify and train volunteers until one can be appointed.
- A complete overhaul of training on foster students’ rights in education is needed for school-based staff, school districts, and county child welfare agency staff.
- Lastly, for school moves that are necessary, the state should pass Assembly Bill 337, which aims to provide reimbursement for transportation to foster youth care takers. Note Sept.17, 2019: AB 337 stalled in the legislature, and is in the “suspense file.”
We have made great policy strides in the last ten years, but outcomes have not changed for our youth in foster care. Our youth deserve better.
Margaret Olmos is state director and Jessica Maxwell is deputy director of FosterEd California, a project of the National Center for Youth Law, that works to help youth in foster care, under the jurisdiction of probation or experiencing homelessness, succeed in school and beyond. Vanessa Hernandez is deputy director of policy and training for California Youth Connection, a youth-led nonprofit organization that works to transform the child welfare system through policy, practice and legislative change.
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