As a principal in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD), east of Santa Cruz, CA, Richard Puente knew he was responsible for ensuring that students in foster care were receiving the educational services they needed in order to learn — in spite of the disruption they experience outside of school.
But he didn’t have a systematic way to identify who those students were, and if he did, there were no resources to provide them with additional support.
Now, as the district’s liaison for FosterEd, a project of the National Center for Youth Law that works with educational systems to improve services and for students in the child welfare system, he oversees an array of programs that are addressing their academic and social-emotional needs. These include one-on-one tutoring services, social-emotional counselors at every school and an individualized plan for each student in foster care that is similar to how schools plan and monitor services for students with special needs. Students in foster care also receive priority for after-school and summer learning programs.
“You have to have dedication to invest in targeted interventions,” says Puente, also a former foster parent. “You have to invest resources to make a difference.”
The resources now available to PVUSD and other districts across California are the result of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, which began four years ago and provided additional funds so that districts could better serve children in foster care in their schools.
“The liaisons are helping to build collaboration that cuts across different systems,” says Michelle Francois Traiman, the senior director of FosterEd, which is also working in Arizona, New Mexico and Indiana to improve the way educators and child welfare employees cooperate on behalf of the students. FosterEd hires liaisons to work in demonstration sites, but the goal is for those people to eventually become district staff members and to create a sustainable program.
Meanwhile, for the first time, all states are required to report achievement data and graduation rates for students in foster care under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and to identify points of contact at the state and district levels. The law also requires districts to allow foster youth to remain in their same school, even if they move to a living arrangement outside of that attendance zone, and to provide transportation to those schools.
In state plans, the “educational stability of children in foster care” had never before been a priority, says Jacqueline Wong, who heads up the California Department of Education’s Foster Youth Services program and was influential in making sure ESSA included protections for foster youth. “For the federal government to say, ‘You must collaborate,’ that hasn’t been said before.”
But even with ESSA’s provisions regarding foster youth, there is still a need for programs that ensure coordination at the local level, says Rachel Velcoff Hults, FosterEd’s deputy director.
“These requirements are a floor, not a ceiling, and there is still so much more that we must collectively do make sure that students have access to individual support and guidance as they work towards their goals and navigate the process of planning for their futures,” Hults says. “We want to continue to work with public agencies on not only meeting existing legal requirements, but also developing and implementing new programs and strategies to close the achievement gap.”
‘A culture shift’
In addition to experiencing frequent school changes, data show that nationally, the roughly 270,000 school-aged children in foster care are more likely to struggle academically and less likely to graduate from high school. And in California, new statewide chronic absenteeism data show that a quarter of students in foster care miss more than 10% of the days they are enrolled in school — more than any other subgroup, including homeless students and those from low-income families. Because of changes in their living arrangements, however, it’s not unusual for these students to go days or weeks without even being enrolled in school. The state’s new data dashboard will also provide disaggregated suspension and expulsion data that includes rates for students in foster care.
“There’s been a real culture shift of putting these kids on the map,” says Kim Corneille, a former classroom teacher and now the senior community organizer and FosterEd project lead for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education.
Prior to 2015, the county offices delivered services to students in the foster care system, but a new law enacted that year increased funding for the program, shifted the responsibility to the districts and gave the county agencies more of a coordinating role — what Traiman calls “the glue between child welfare and the schools.”
The heart of the FosterEd model is to improve communication between the various adults involved in a foster child’s life, which can include biological parents. “You need someone to speak both languages of child welfare and education,” Wong says.
The liaisons oversee the development of a plan that supports the student’s academic success and social-emotional needs. The educational plan — whether it includes therapy, tutoring, internships or after-school enrichment — is revisited throughout the school year to make sure it is meeting the student’s needs.
“There are so many people that work with foster youth,” Corneille says. “Previously, people would be working in silos.”
Ultimately, the goal is for the student to identify the adults who are their “champions,” Traiman says. “We want to see young people trust adults and reach out to adults.” And if a school change becomes necessary, the coordination ensures that “there is a good handoff” to the next school.
Preventing students from disengaging
California’s new funding formula, the revised county-level coordination and the ESSA provisions have all created what Wong describes as a “perfect positive storm” for children in foster care — a convergence that is also beginning to take place in the other states where FosterEd works.
In New Mexico, Lea County was chosen as the first demonstration site, and in Arizona, the program is moving well beyond a few locations. In 2016, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation that appropriated $1.5 million to expand the services statewide — a figure that would increase to $2 million if they worked in partnership with Arizona-based foundations to raise another $500,000. The new law also gives students in foster care preference when enrolling in a school of their choice.
The initial pilot in Pima County — Tucson — has helped to inform further expansion of the program to Maricopa County and a third county that will be added this year. An initial evaluation showed gains in both grade point average and attendance, but RTI International will conduct a more extensive study on the impact of the program over the next couple of years.
“One of the key things we learned is that students’ needs come in different sizes,” says Molly Dunn, the director of FosterEd Arizona. “Some need that intense level of regular contact and interaction in order to meet their goals.”
And others need some short-term support, particularly during transition periods between homes and schools, so they don’t “disengage,” she says. The challenge is that it’s difficult for one liaison to provide both levels of service, so they designed two positions — intensive liaisons who are located in high schools and responsive liaisons who are housed in Department of Child Safety offices and also help to educate school staff members about identifying and addressing the needs of students in care.
“We definitely have people saying, ‘Who are you?’ They learn about us and we suddenly get students referred,” Dunn says. “It really is a steep learning curve, but one that the folks at school are really embracing.”