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May 30, 2024 Feature

Improving the Educational Outcomes of Students in Foster Care: Recommendations Based on an Analysis of Data from New York City

Sarah Part & Erika Palmer

This article is adapted with permission from a report published by Advocates for Children of New York in January 2023. Aᴅᴠᴏᴄꜱ. ꜰᴏʀ Cʜɪʟᴅ. ᴏꜰ N.Y., Bᴜɪʟᴅɪɴɢ ᴏɴ Pᴏᴛᴇɴᴛɪᴀʟ: ɴᴇxᴛ ꜱᴛᴇᴘꜱ ᴛᴏ ɪᴍᴘʀᴏᴠᴇ ᴇᴅᴜᴄᴀᴛɪᴏɴᴀʟ ᴏᴜᴛᴄᴏᴍᴇꜱ ꜰᴏʀ ꜱᴛᴜᴅᴇɴᴛꜱ ɪɴ ꜰᴏꜱᴛᴇʀ ᴄᴀʀᴇ (2023). All of the figures in this article originally appeared in that report. The figures are based on analysis by Sarah Part from Advocates for Children of data prepared by local and state government agencies. Ms. Part and Erika Palmer were the principal authors of the report. Citations to the report are provided for reference. The authors would like to thank former AFC interns Max Weinstein and Cora Wolfinger for their help with this article.

Introduction

In 2021, there were nearly 300,000 preschool- and school-age children and youth in foster care in the United States. When children are removed from their home and placed in the foster system, they are separated from their parents, and possibly from siblings, pets, and other loved ones; they may be placed in an unfamiliar neighborhood with caregivers who are complete strangers; and they may have to change foster homes multiple times. No matter the circumstances prompting the removal, this is a deeply disruptive and traumatic event in a young person’s life, and one over which they have little to no control. In taking such drastic action, the state has a moral obligation to ensure these children’s needs are being met and, at a bare minimum, to avoid causing further harm. The public school system, in particular, has a critical role to play in supporting youth in the foster system. Federal law provides students in foster care with special protections that recognize their unique needs, including the right to remain in their school, even if their foster care placement is in another school district; access to Education and Training vouchers, which help current and former foster youth up to age 26 pay for college, career school, or training; and the ability for child welfare agencies to access students’ education records without parental release, in order to address students’ educational needs.

Though few in number relative to the entire student population, children in foster care have some of the most complex educational needs and bleakest academic outcomes of any student group: They experience frequent school changes and have high rates of chronic absenteeism; are more likely than their peers to be suspended from school, qualify for special education services, or be retained in a grade; and are less likely to score proficient on standardized tests, graduate from high school, or complete college. As the nation’s largest school district, New York City offers a compelling case study of these challenges. More than 7,000 New York City students spend time in foster care each year. In line with national trends, students in foster care comprise less than one percent of the total public school population and have frequently been overlooked, seemingly invisible within the City’s sprawling public school system.

Our organization, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), works to ensure a high-quality education for students in New York who face barriers to academic success; for over 50 years, AFC has focused on serving students from low-income backgrounds who have disabilities, are learning English as a new language, are experiencing homelessness, or are involved in the foster care or juvenile/criminal legal systems. Since 2002, AFC’s Project Achieve has partnered with foster care agencies across New York City to enhance their ability to address the educational needs of the children they serve; provided free advice, technical assistance, and legal representation to individual students and families involved in the foster system; and advocated for policy changes to improve educational experiences and outcomes for youth in foster care.

At the beginning of the 2022–23 school year, in response to sustained advocacy by AFC and many other legal services providers and foster care agencies, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) took an important step forward by hiring a small team of staffers dedicated to supporting students in foster care. The creation of such an office was first recommended by the City’s Interagency Foster Care Task Force in March 2018. This office is now tasked with providing support and training to school staff with respect to the educational rights of children in foster care and their families, reviewing data to ensure schools are meeting the needs of students in foster care, and developing and implementing policies to improve educational experiences and outcomes for this population.

This article aims to provide a broad overview of the state of education for students in foster care in New York City at the time of this office’s inception. It analyzes DOE data from the 2016–17 through 2020–21 school years obtained by AFC pursuant to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, supplemented with publicly available data from the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and other sources; our findings mirror those seen elsewhere in the country with respect to attendance, receipt of special education services, exclusionary discipline, academic achievement, and school stability. Based on this analysis and our organization’s decades of experience working with students in the foster system, we make recommendations for how municipalities can better support students in foster care and highlight some recent promising practices from New York City and elsewhere.

Part I of this article lays out the findings from our analysis of the DOE’s response to our FOIL request. Part I.A summarizes our findings related to student demographics and school enrollment; Part I.B looks at attendance and chronic absenteeism among students in foster care; Part I.C considers suspensions; and Part I.D examines academic outcomes among students in foster care as compared to other students, including their performance on standardized tests and graduation rates. Part I.E examines school stability and the impact of school transfers on academic performance. Part II discusses our recommendations.

I. Findings

A. Demographics and School Enrollment

Children and youth in foster care in New York City are disproportionately Black and from low-income communities. For example, of preschool- and school-age children in foster care in December 2021, over half (51%) were Black, though less than a quarter of all 3- to 20-year-olds living in the five boroughs are Black. The percentage of children in foster care who are Latinx (38%) is roughly proportional to the overall population, while White and Asian children are notably underrepresented (comprising just under five percent and about two percent, respectively, of those in the foster system). Although students in foster care are spread out across the City, they are particularly concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods in the Bronx, central and east Brooklyn, and southeast Queens, as shown in Figure 1. In addition, more than a third (34%) of 13- to 20-year-olds in foster care in New York City identify as LGBTQIA, notably higher than in the general population of NYC youth.

Students in the foster system span the grade levels: Of the 6,604 students in foster care in 2020–21 for whom grade-level data are available, 7.0% were in pre-K, 23.1% were in kindergarten through second grade, 20.2% were in grades 3–5, 17.2% were in middle school (grades 6–8), and 32.6% were in high school (grades 9–12). At every grade level, students in the foster system made up between 0.5 and 0.8% of total New York City Public Schools 2020–21 enrollment. Students in foster care are less likely than New York City students as a whole to attend charter schools; during the 2020–21 school year, for example, 8.1% of students in the foster system attended charters, compared to 12.7% of all students Citywide.

Figure 1. There are particularly large numbers of children placed in foster care in Jamaica and Hollis in Queens (parts of school districts 27, 28, and 29); East New York and Brownsville in Brooklyn (school districts 19 and 23); Williamsbridge, Parkchester, and Morrisania in the Bronx (parts of districts 8, 9, 11, and 12); and St. George and Stapleton on Staten Island (part of district 31).

Includes all children who were in foster care in New York City on December 31, 2021, for whom community district is available (n=6,040), including those not enrolled in school (e.g., toddlers too young for 3-K and older youth who already graduated or dropped out). Source: N.Y.C. Admin. for Child’s. Servs., Children in Foster Care by Borough/CD of Foster Care Placement (Dec. 31, 2021).

 

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1. Students in Foster Care Receive Special Education Services at Higher Rates Than the General Student Population and Are Overrepresented in the Most Segregated Settings.

During each school year from 2016–17 to 2020–21, between 43.9 and 48.3% of students in foster care in New York City were classified as students with disabilities, with a five-year average of 46.6%more than double the Citywide special education classification rate of 20.5% (See Figure 2 for 2020–21 data). Moreover, students in the foster system who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are less likely than other students with IEPs to be learning in inclusive settings alongside their peers without disabilities. As of May 2021, approximately half (49.7%) of students with disabilities in foster care were recommended for self-contained special education classes, in which students with disabilities are segregated from their nondisabled peers; by comparison, roughly 30% of students with disabilities not in foster care had this IEP recommendation.

Similarly, students in the foster system are overrepresented in District 75, the Citywide special education district that serves students with the most significant needs. During each of the 2016–17 through 2020–21 school years, more than one in five students in foster care with an IEP (between 21.3 and 23.7%, depending on the year) were in a District 75 placement, compared to a five-year average of only 11% for all City students with disabilities. (See Figure 2 for 2020–21 data).

Figure 2. Over 40% of students in foster care are classified as students with disabilities, more than twice the Citywide rate. Of students in care with IEPs, more than one out of five is in a District 75 special education school, a placement type in which students have little to no interaction with peers who do not have disabilities.

Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data); Demographic Snapshot—Citywide, Borough, District, and School: SY 2017–18 to 2021–22—All Grades.

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2. Youth in the Foster System Attend Alternative Schools and Programs at Higher Rates Than City Students Overall.

In 2020–21, 18% of 9th–12th graders in foster care were overage for their grade level, meaning they had been held back at least once and/or were behind on earning credits; by comparison, roughly 7.7% of all high school students were overage that year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, students in foster care attend transfer schools—alternative schools designed to serve older youth who have dropped out or fallen behind on credits—at more than double the Citywide rate. In each of the five school years for which data are available, more than one in 10 high schoolers in foster care (an estimated 10.2 to 11.8%, depending on the year) were enrolled in a transfer school, compared to 4.2% of all New York City students in grades 9–12. Youth in the foster system are also significantly more likely to be in programs that prepare students to take the GED exam to earn a high school equivalency diploma: In each of the 2016–17 through 2020–21 school years, an estimated 6.1 to 7.3% of 9th–12th graders in care were enrolled in DOE-run GED programs, compared to only about 1.1% of high school students Citywide.

Overall, 4.4% of all students in foster care were in District 79, New York City’s alternative school district, which includes GED and other nontraditional programs, at the end of the 2020–21 school year, more than six times the rate of City students overall (approximately 0.7% of whom were enrolled in District 79). In prior years, this disparity was even more dramatic: During the 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19 school years, foster youth were in District 79 at more than 12 times the Citywide rate (5.5–6.2% versus 0.4–0.5%).

B. Attendance and Chronic Absenteeism

Roughly half of all New York City students in foster care are chronically absent, defined as missing at least one out of every 10 school days. Many are severely chronically absent: In 2020–21, for example, roughly one in every six students in foster care (17.0%) had an attendance rate below 50%, meaning they missed over half the school year (see Figure 3). By comparison, slightly more than a quarter of all City students were chronically absent during each of the 2016–17 through 2020–21 school years (between 25.1 and 29.7%, depending on the year). As shown in Figure 4, absenteeism is especially alarming among older youth: During these five school years, less than a quarter of 16- to 20-year-old students in foster care attended school regularly (at least 90% of the time), while more than one in three (38.1%) had an attendance rate below 50%.

Figure 3. During each of the 2016–17 through 2020–21 school years, roughly half of all students in foster care (48.0 to 54.5%, depending on the year) were chronically absent. Between one in six and one in nine students in care attended school less than half the time.

Includes all students between the ages of five and 20 in foster care as of June 30 of each school year for whom attendance data are available. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote learning, 2019–20 attendance only reflects the school year up to mid-March and is not fully comparable to other years. Source: Educational Continuity of Children in Foster Care reports created by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services for SY 2016–17 through SY 2020–21; N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., End-of-Year Attendance and Chronic Absenteeism Data: 2017–18 through 2021–22.

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Figure 4. Three out of four 16- to 20-year-old students in the foster system (76.7%) were chronically absent between 2016–17 and 2020–21; of those students, roughly half missed more days of school than they attended.

Includes all students in foster care as of June 30 of each school year for whom attendance data are available. Source: Educational Continuity of Children in Foster Care reports created by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services for SY 2016–17 through SY 2020–21.

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The consequences of chronic absenteeism are self-evident: Students who are frequently absent have fewer opportunities to learn. Regardless of whether a child is involved in the foster system, missing instructional time makes it more difficult to stay on track with the curriculum and succeed academically, and students who are not present every day also miss out on opportunities to socialize with peers, build relationships with teachers, and develop social-emotional skills. High rates of absenteeism have been linked with lower math and reading achievement, reduced odds of graduating from high school or enrolling in college, poorer executive functioning, higher rates of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, and disengagement from school.

C. Suspensions and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Students in the foster system are suspended from New York City public schools at disproportionately high rates. As shown in Figure 5, the DOE issued between 123 and 141 suspensions for every 1,000 students in foster care during each of the 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19 school years, depending on the year. By comparison, the Citywide rate was 33–36 suspensions per 1,000 students enrolled in DOE schools. Overall, roughly one in every 13 DOE students in foster care was suspended during each of these three school years (7.9% of students in foster care at DOE schools received at least one suspension in 2016–17; 8.3% in 2017–18; 7.4% in 2018–19).

Disparities are particularly extreme with respect to long-term suspensions, those in excess of five school days. Combining the three pre-pandemic school years (2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19), the DOE issued long-term suspensions to students in foster care at more than five times the rate at which it issued suspensions of six or more days to City students overall (48.2 long-term suspensions per 1,000 students in foster care versus 9.3 for every 1,000 DOE students).

Figure 5. The DOE issued 133 suspensions for every 1,000 students in foster care between 2016–17 and 2018–19, almost four times the rate at which it issued suspensions to City students overall.

The below graph includes both short- and long-term suspensions. Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data); New York City DOE Annual Reports on Student Discipline.

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These high rates of removal from the classroom are especially concerning when viewed in the context of the grim attendance rates for youth in foster care, as they represent even more lost instructional time and may similarly lead to disengagement from school. Numerous studies on exclusionary discipline have found that suspensions are linked with a range of negative outcomes. Students who are suspended have higher rates of absenteeism, perform worse on standardized tests, are less likely to graduate from high school, and have an increased likelihood of future contact with the juvenile or criminal legal system.

For students in foster care, suspensions likely compound other risk factors (including a history of abuse or neglect) that lead to their overrepresentation among court-involved youth. Consistent with past studies of New York City youth with both child welfare and juvenile legal systems involvement, students in foster care are overrepresented at Passages Academy, which generally serves youth ages 17 and younger who are detained or incarcerated. Similarly, students in foster care are overrepresented at East River Academy, which generally provides educational programming to 18- to 21-year-olds incarcerated on Rikers Island. Approximately 15.3% of all young adults enrolled at East River Academy at the end of the 2020–21 school year were students in the foster system, as were an estimated 46.9% of students at Passages Academy. As noted above, students in foster care make up less than one percent of the public school population in New York City.

D. Academic Outcomes

Students in foster care are at risk for lower academic achievement, as measured by standardized test scores and high school graduation rates, than their peers. Moreover, past studies from elsewhere in the country have shown that these disparities are not simply a function of who is placed in foster care in the first place; while there are also well-documented disparities in test performance based on socioeconomic status, and children from low-income families are disproportionately likely to have contact with the foster system, gaps between students with and without foster care involvement cannot be explained by differences in socioeconomic status alone.

1. Grades 3–8 Reading and Math Proficiency

In each of the 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19 school years, roughly 2,300 students in grades 3–8 who were in foster care took the New York State math and English Language Arts (ELA) exams. Combining results from all three years, only 15.4% of students in the foster system were proficient (scoring level 3 or 4) in math, while almost 60% received the lowest possible score (level 1). In ELA, more than twice as many students in foster care were at level 1 (45.8%) than were reading at a proficient level (19.8%).

For both tested subjects, the lower proficiency rates for students in foster care as compared to students Citywide are primarily a reflection of the fact that students in foster care are more likely to receive the lowest possible score (see Figure 6). For example, students in foster care scored a level 2 in math at roughly the Citywide rate (25.3% of students in foster care versus 25.9% Citywide), but there is a difference of more than 25 percentage points in the proportion of students scoring level 1 (59.3% of students in foster care as compared to 30.2% Citywide). This pattern suggests that students in the foster system are more likely than their peers to be performing significantly below grade level; it is not the case that low proficiency rates for this population are because students are falling just below the cutoff for passing.

Figure 6. According to the grades 3–8 New York State tests, nearly 85% of students in foster care are not proficient in math and four out of five are not reading proficiently.

The below graph combines results from the 2017, 2018, and 2019 test administrations and includes both DOE and charter schools. Levels 3 and 4 are considered proficient. Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data); NYSED 3–8 Assessment Database (2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19).

fig 6 insert

Without access to student-level data, we are unable to control for other variables—such as socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and disability status—that are correlated with both child welfare involvement and lower scores on standardized math and reading tests. In other words, we cannot tease out the extent to which the above proficiency rates are a reflection of broader inequities—the fact that the students most likely to be placed in foster care are those who are already marginalized and thus less likely to have access to a high-quality education—versus the extent to which students in the foster system are struggling above and beyond their similarly situated peers.

Nevertheless, aggregate proficiency rates suggest that students in foster care in New York City constitute a unique subgroup that demands targeted attention. For example, as shown in Figure 7, there is a gap of 20 percentage points in reading proficiency rates between 3rd–8th graders in foster care and all 3rd–8th grade students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or other public benefits (a subgroup somewhat more comparable to students in foster care than City students as a whole). Math proficiency rates for all low-income students are more than double those of students in foster care (38.2% versus 15.4%). Results for students with disabilities in foster care also trail the already-low proficiency rates for students with disabilities Citywide. Combining results from the 2017, 2018, and 2019 test administrations, just 7.7% of 3rd–8th graders with IEPs in foster care were proficient in math and only 8.1% were reading proficiently, compared to proficiency rates of 16.8% (math) and 15.5% (reading) for all New York City students with disabilities.

Figure 7. Math and reading proficiency rates for students in foster care—who are disproportionately from low-income communities—significantly trail those for all students who are economically disadvantaged. Likewise, students with disabilities in foster care are even less likely than students with disabilities Citywide to score proficient on the state tests.

The below graph combines results from the 2017, 2018, and 2019 test administrations and includes both DOE and charter schools. Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data); NYSED 3–8 Assessment Database (2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19).

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2. High School Graduation Rates

Only 40.2% of students who started ninth grade in 2017 and spent time in foster care while in high school graduated in four years, compared to a Citywide graduation rate of 81% (see Figure 8). One in five students in this cohort who had foster care experience during high school (20.5%) dropped out by August 2021, more than four times the Citywide dropout rate of 4.6%. These disturbing numbers actually represent an improvement over previous cohorts: Data obtained by AFC show that of students who entered ninth grade in 2016 and spent time in the foster system while in high school, only 32.7% graduated by August 2020 (see Figure 9), while a recent study by the NYC Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence (CIDI) reported that only one in four students with foster care experience graduated on time in 2019.

As with performance on the state tests, graduation outcomes are even more abysmal for students with disabilities in foster care than for students in the foster system overall. Of students with IEPs who spent time in foster care while in high school, only 29.7% of those who started ninth grade in 2017 earned a diploma by August 2021, roughly half the Citywide graduation rate for all New York City students with disabilities in the cohort (57.9%). Students with disabilities who were in the foster system during high school dropped out at more than three times the Citywide rate for all students with IEPs (23.3% versus 6.8%).

Figure 8. The four-year graduation rate for students who entered ninth grade in 2017 and spent time in foster care while in high school was less than half that for all New York City students, while youth with foster care experience dropped out of high school at more than quadruple the Citywide rate.

The below graph includes both DOE and NYC charter schools. Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data); NYSED Graduation Rate Database (2020–21). The graduation rate for students in foster care reported here is lower than that reported by NYSED because it reflects outcomes for a larger cohort of students: Data obtained via FOIL request include all students who spent time in foster care at any point during high school (n = 752 for the class of 2021), whereas NYSED publicly reports graduation outcomes for students who were in foster care during the school year in question (n = 433 in 2021).

[fig 8 insert]

In both 2020 and 2021, students in foster care were also more likely than City students as a whole to earn a high school equivalency diploma or to leave school with a New York State Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential (SACC), a non-diploma certificate for students with disabilities. These patterns likely reflect the overrepresentation of students in foster care in GED programs and District 75, respectively.

Figure 9. In 2020 and 2021, well under half of students who spent time in foster care during high school graduated, while more than 20% dropped out.

The below graph includes both DOE and charter schools. The “unknown” category reflects the difference between the total number of students in the cohort and the sum of the number who graduated, dropped out, earned an equivalency diploma or non-diploma certificate, or were still enrolled; among those with foster care experience, there was one such student in the class of 2020 and eight students in 2021. Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data); NYSED Graduation Rate Database (2019–20 and 2020–21). The graduation rate for students in foster care reported here is lower than that reported by NYSED because it reflects outcomes for a larger cohort of students: Data obtained via FOIL request include all students who spent time in foster care at any point during high school (n = 752 for the class of 2021), whereas NYSED publicly reports graduation outcomes for students who were in foster care during the school year in question (n = 433 in 2021).

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E. School Stability

When children enter foster care or change foster care placements, they may transfer schools, sometimes because the new placement is further away from the school they had attended and is closer to a different school. When children transfer schools when they enter foster care or change foster placements, they are forced to adjust to a new curriculum, new teachers and classmates, and a new physical environment at the same time as they are coping with the separation from their home and family. Being the “new kid” in class can be difficult under the best of circumstances; for students in the foster system, unexpected school transfers can sever relationships with friends and caring adults at a time when they need that support the most. Conversely, when students have a consistent school placement while in foster care, school can serve as a safe haven and a source of stability amid enormous stress, upheaval, and uncertainty.

Federal and state laws provide students in foster care with special protections that recognize the critical importance of school stability: School districts and foster care agencies are required to keep students in their original schools when they enter care or change foster homes, unless it is in a student’s best interest to transfer to a new school. Yet prior to the pandemic and the shift to remote and hybrid learning, more than one in four students in foster care in New York City transferred schools each year. In 2018–19—the last full school year unaffected by COVID-19—at least 20.7% of students in care (1,604 students) switched schools once and another 8.5% (656 students) transferred two or more times. By 2020–21, these numbers had dropped to 10.9% (one school transfer) and 3.5% (two or more transfers), but much of this decline is likely attributable to the fact that the majority of New York City students were participating in remote learning because of the pandemic, which obviated the need to change schools when moving to a new home in a different neighborhood.

Frequently changing schools disrupts both academic learning and socialization, and numerous studies have found that, for students both inside and outside the foster system, school mobility is associated with increased risk of grade retention, a decline in reading and math achievement, and lower educational attainment. As the figures below make clear, data from New York City follow this pattern: Students in foster care who transfer schools midyear, especially those who transfer multiple times, perform worse on the grades 3–8 New York State tests and are less likely to graduate high school in four years.

For example, combining results from the 2017, 2018, and 2019 test administrations, math and reading proficiency rates for 3rd–8th graders in foster care who did not transfer schools were more than five percentage points higher than those for students in foster care who changed schools once during the year they were tested and eight percentage points higher than those for youth with two or more school transfers (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. According to the New York State tests, 3rd–8th grade students in foster care who transfer schools during the year are less likely to be proficient in math and reading than their peers in care who do not change schools.

The below graph combines results from the 2017, 2018, and 2019 test administrations. Levels 3 and 4 are considered proficient. Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data).

[fig 10 insert]

Similarly, of students who started ninth grade in 2017 and spent time in the foster system during high school, those who stayed at the same school through senior year had a four-year graduation rate of 68.1%, while only 18.2% of those who changed high schools two or more times earned a diploma by August 2021 (see Figures 11, 12). The 2021 dropout rate for students in foster care who transferred twice (or more) while in high school was 27.3%, more than double that of youth in care with zero school transfers (13.4%) and nearly six times the Citywide dropout rate (4.6%).

Figure 11. The four-year August graduation rate for students who started ninth grade in 2017, spent time in foster care while in high school, and transferred schools two or more times was just 18.2%—60 percentage points lower than the Citywide rate.

Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data); NYSED Graduation Rate Database (2020–21).

[fig 11] insert

As discussed previously, we do not have access to student-level data and thus cannot control for other variables associated with earning a diploma to isolate the impact of transferring schools. However, our findings mirror those of the NYC Center for Innovation Through Data Intelligence (CIDI); their recent study, which included data on 11,000 youth in foster care who started high school between 2005 and 2015, controlled for a range of educational and child welfare indicators (e.g., eighth grade ELA and math scores, cumulative time spent in foster care) and found a statistically significant difference in the probability of graduating high school between students who attended one school and those who attended two or more schools.

Figure 12. Students in the foster system who transfer schools two or more times during high school drop out at higher rates than they earn a diploma; they are also significantly more likely than their peers in foster care who do not transfer schools to earn a GED rather than a traditional high school diploma.

Source: N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. Response to FOIL Request F18,237 (Apr. 28, 2022) (Students in Foster Care Data).

fig 12 insert

II. Recommendations

The findings in this article are sobering. In the context of New York City’s massive public school system, the more than 7,000 students in foster care comprise a relatively small group; as a result, they have historically been overlooked. Yet if these students were to comprise their own school district, it would be a district roughly the size of White Plains (a suburb of New York City) and larger than 95% of all other school districts in New York State. This district would be one in which barely one in five students is reading proficiently, less than half graduate high school in four years, and 38% of older youth are absent from school more often than they attend. While this article focuses on students in New York City, studies from around the country demonstrate that New York City is not alone among school districts in delivering disparate outcomes for students in the foster system. In light of these ongoing inequities, we respectfully make the following recommendations for local education agencies (LEAs).

A. Train Schools on the Unique Needs and Legal Rights of Students in Foster Care and Their Families

A top priority for LEAs should be ensuring schools have the information and skills they need to support students in foster care and their families. LEAs can partner with local departments of social services and other child welfare professionals to provide training for educators and school staff that increases their capacity to understand and address the unique needs of youth in the foster system; such training should explain, for example:

  • How the foster care system works, including what happens after a call to child protective services from the perspective of families and children, and information about the key players (e.g., case planners, parents’ and children’s legal representatives, etc.) with whom school staff must be familiar to communicate effectively about students in foster care;
  • The rights of parents whose children are in foster care, such as those around receiving education records, attending school meetings, making educational decisions, and participating in the special education process, as well as best practices for engaging parents in their children’s education while children are in foster care;
  • The rights of students in foster care with respect to enrollment and school stability, including students’ right to remain in their school of origin and their right to transportation while in foster care;
  • The unique social-emotional needs of youth in the foster system, including the importance of confidentiality and maintaining family ties and connections, and how to implement trauma-informed practices and maintain sensitivity to differences in children’s family dynamics and experiences; and
  • Where school staff can turn for assistance when complicated questions arise related to the above rights and needs (for example, determining who should consent to special education evaluations and services in a specific student’s case).

B. Improve Communication Between Schools, Families, and Child Welfare Professionals and Ensure Parents, Foster Parents, and Child Welfare Staff All Have Timely Access to Educational Information

In addition to training school staff, LEAs can directly support schools in forming effective partnerships with families of students in foster care and with local departments of social services. LEAs must ensure that parents, foster families, and foster care case planners have timely access to all education-related information, including school notices, student education records, and any online portals or apps used to facilitate communication with families. To this end, LEAs should:

  • Issue clear policies and guidelines so that parents can access their children’s educational records when they are in foster care.
  • Issue clear policies and guidelines so that foster care case planners and other child welfare staff can access the school records of students in their care.
  • Ensure schools make efforts to involve and engage parents while their children are in foster care, unless they no longer maintain their rights, so that parents can continue to be involved in their children’s education and are prepared for when their children return home. This includes ensuring that all notices are sent to the student’s parent(s) and child welfare agency—not solely to the current foster parent—including notices related to a student’s special education needs or any disciplinary concerns, and that parents continue to be invited to parent-teacher conferences and other school events (e.g., a field day or winter concert) while their children are in care, assuming no limiting court orders are in place.

C. Guarantee Door-to-Door Transportation for Students in Foster Care So They Can Continue to Attend School Without Interruption

The first step to succeeding in school is getting there in the first place. LEAs and local child welfare agencies must collaborate to guarantee door-to-door transportation, including bus service or a comparable alternative, for students in foster care so they do not have to transfer schools unnecessarily.

As discussed above, federal law requires state and local education agencies and child welfare agencies to work together to ensure that students in foster care receive prompt, cost-effective transportation whenever needed to maintain enrollment in their school of origin. In some states, like New York, the school district of attendance must provide students in foster care with transportation from their foster care placement to their school of origin. Despite these legal obligations, however, many students in foster care do not get the transportation they need to preserve their school placement. For example, the NYC DOE allows students in foster care who do not meet other busing criteria to complete an “exceptions request” ticket and will provide bus service if a student can be added to an existing route. The DOE provides public transportation passes to other students, even though many children in foster care may be too young to safely take public transit by themselves. As a result, students who cannot travel to school on their own have been forced to transfer schools, or even transfer foster homes.

Even when students do receive busing, delays in routing and inconsistent transportation can be hugely destabilizing to students who are already in crisis. Therefore, LEAs and child welfare agencies must identify solutions that will allow students to be transported to their school of origin promptly upon placement in foster care or a change in foster homes. In cases in which busing cannot be arranged quickly or where a comparable mode of transportation would be more effective, LEAs and child welfare agencies must provide an alternative that does not require the student’s foster parent or agency staff to accompany the student to and from school. Possible solutions include offering prepaid car service or rideshare with a chaperone to accompany the child (e.g., an aide or childcare worker) or contracting with companies that use smaller vehicles with vetted drivers to transport students in foster care, provided LEAs work out the logistics of school staff escorting the child to and from the vehicle.

D. Collaborate with Families, Local Departments of Social Services, and Foster Care Agencies to Promote School Attendance

Addressing the alarmingly high rates of chronic absenteeism among students in foster care should be a top priority for LEAs and child welfare agencies. Student caregivers and child welfare agency staff must have access to real-time attendance information so that families and agencies know when students miss school and can intervene early—before absences start to compound. When attendance first starts to become a concern for a particular student in the foster system, schools should immediately reach out to the student’s support network—including their current foster parent, parent(s), and case planner or other child welfare agency staff—to identify the underlying causes and develop targeted solutions. In New York City, we have already seen several promising examples in which a foster care community coordinator on the DOE’s Foster Care Team flagged troubling attendance data for a foster care agency and worked collaboratively with agency staff and the student’s family to identify and resolve the barriers resulting in absences from school.

LEAs and local departments of social services should work together to identify systemic barriers that lead to absences for students in the foster system and address those challenges. For example, school staff and child welfare agencies should encourage families and case planners to schedule family visits, court appearances, doctor’s appointments, and other obligations outside of the school day whenever possible so that students in care are not forced to miss class. If an appointment must be scheduled during school hours, schools should work with families and child welfare staff to ensure the student gets their assignments and has an opportunity to make up their work. Additionally, child welfare agencies should support foster parents with transportation so the child can attend school before the appointment and return to school afterwards, rather than missing the entire day.

E. Revise Policies to Remove Barriers That Limit the Full Participation and Success of Students in Foster Care

LEAs must ensure that students in foster care have access to the same educational programs, services, and opportunities as their peers who are not in foster care. To this end, LEAs need to know how their policies, practices, and systems impact students in foster care and whether they may create special barriers for students in the foster system. For example, LEAs can track rates of participation in summer programming, gifted and talented classes, specialized programs for students with disabilities, extracurricular activities, and Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs by foster care status. Where disparities emerge, LEAs should work with students, families, and child welfare agencies to identify barriers to full inclusion—assessing, for example, what is explicitly or implicitly required for students to enroll in and attend a service or program—and design responsive solutions that will support students’ participation and attendance.

One example from New York City is the free, full-day, voluntary summer enrichment program called Summer Rising, which is open to all NYC residents in grades K–8. When the program first began in 2021, enrollment took place on a first-come, first-serve basis, and many of the seats filled in a matter of days or even hours, effectively locking out many vulnerable students. For Summer 2023, the DOE extended the enrollment period for the approximately 110,000 available seats by over two weeks, simplified the online registration process, and prioritized admission for students in temporary housing, students in foster care, and students with special education needs who require 12-month classes. They also set aside over 500 seats for students placed in temporary housing or foster care after the enrollment deadline had passed. As a result, the number of students in foster care registered for Summer Rising rose from just over 100 students in 2022, to more than 2,100 students in 2023.

Following any such changes in policies or programming, LEAs should track progress in participation rates and continue to assess disparities between students in foster care and their peers. In addition, as LEAs announce new programs and initiatives, they should consider the unique needs and situations of students in foster care, ensuring such programs will be accessible to students in the foster system.

F. Ensure Students in Foster Care Have Access to a Comprehensive, Integrated System of Behavioral and Mental Health Services and Are Proactively Supported Through Trauma-Informed Practices and Other Alternatives to Suspension

1. Leverage New and Existing Mental Health Supports for Students in Foster Care

Students in foster care face unique challenges as they change home and family environments and experience the impacts of trauma. As such, LEAs must collaborate with child welfare, mental health, and other agencies to ensure that students in foster care receive the direct behavioral and mental health support they need to remain in school. In addition, expanding inclusive program options and providing more robust behavioral and mental health supports to students in foster care in their local schools could help reduce overreliance on restrictive, out-of-district special education placements. LEAs overall should help families and child welfare staff understand the range of behavioral and mental health services available in different schools in their community so that they can make informed choices when enrolling students in school or making best interest determinations about a student’s school placement.

2. Create Healing-Centered Schools by Educating All Members of the School Community About the Impact of Trauma and Implementing Trauma-Informed and Restorative Practices Tailored to Students’ Individual Needs

Teachers and school staff who do not understand how trauma can manifest in a school setting may misjudge a child’s behavior and respond in a manner that is ineffective or that causes further harm. LEAs must shift to a preventive model that recognizes social-emotional well-being is essential for learning and that identifies and supports—instead of punishes—students who are experiencing the impacts of trauma. LEAs should improve how they train school staff and give them the tools to proactively recognize and empathetically respond to the effects of trauma, especially as they relate to the foster care experience specifically, and build schools’ capacity to use inclusive, culturally responsive, and restorative practices to support students in the foster system. Indeed, schools that use healing-centered practices can help reverse the effects of trauma, boost academic engagement, and promote social-emotional well-being.

3. Partner with Students, Families, and Child Welfare Agencies to Tailor Services for Students in Foster Care and Create Supportive Environments That Keep Them in School

Interventions for students experiencing trauma must be responsive to a student’s specific needs and targeted toward keeping the student engaged in learning. By building collaborative relationships with families and child welfare agencies and maintaining two-way communication, schools can proactively identify moments when a student may need additional support, such as during a transition to a new foster care placement, immediately before or after family visits, or when a permanency goal is changed from return to parent to adoption. School staff should work collaboratively with students, families, and agency support staff to identify triggers for behavioral challenges and develop support plans that keep students in the classroom. When a school does suspend a student in foster care, it should be only as a last resort and limited in duration. Furthermore, schools must communicate with a student’s family and child welfare agency immediately, including by providing written notice of any disciplinary meetings or hearings, and should take proactive steps to re-engage the student and ensure they feel welcomed and supported upon their return to school.

G. Strengthen Pathways to College, Careers, and Post-secondary Programs, Particularly for Students on Alternative Routes to Graduation

The data show that students in foster care disproportionately attend alternative high schools and participate in GED programs. As such, LEAs should increase supports for students to successfully complete these programs and earn a high school diploma or equivalency following a disruption or setback in school. Given the high percentage of students in foster care who have disabilities, it is especially critical to ensure that nontraditional schools and programs can provide special education services; in our experience, students whose IEPs recommend self-contained classes often experience barriers to entry to alternative programs that might otherwise be a good fit. The types of trainings described in the previous recommendations will also be particularly important for staff at alternative high schools and GED programs to ensure they are aware of and sensitive to the unique needs of older youth in the foster system. For example, program staff should continue to collaborate with trusted adults from the youth’s foster care agency to provide maximum support for students, even when they are over the age of 18, particularly youth who may not have a strong attachment to their foster parent or may live in a group home setting.

LEAs should also ensure that students graduating from nontraditional high schools and equivalency programs have clear pathways to college and careers. LEAs should develop bridges between alternative schools and vocational program offerings and work closely with students and child welfare agencies to set students up to meet their post-secondary goals. For students with disabilities graduating from alternative schools and programs, LEAs should strengthen connections between these alternative pathways and vocational rehabilitation programs and other post-secondary supports.

One promising practice in New York is the Fair Futures program, which funds child welfare agencies to hire tutors, middle school specialists, college specialists, and coaches to support youth in foster care ages 11 to 26. The program, which was launched systemwide in 2019, is based on 1:1 coaching practices piloted at two New York City foster care agencies over the course of over nine years, during which over 90% of coached participants achieved a high school diploma or equivalency by age 21, and nearly all enrolled in the workforce or a post-secondary education setting by age 26. As part of the model, specialists and coaches are trained to work closely with schools to help youth achieve their academic, career development, and independent living goals. The Fair Futures model expanded into the Buffalo, NY, region in 2022.

H. Publicly Report Educational Data About Students in Foster Care

Shining a light on the inequities students in the foster system face is the first step toward developing solutions to address their unique needs. Following the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, school districts nationwide were required to report on the graduation rates and state test scores of students in foster care for the first time, and the results were sobering: In New York City, students in foster care consistently have the lowest four-year graduation rate of any student group. As our findings in this article make clear, students in foster care face many barriers to achieving educational parity to students not in foster care.

Improved access to data about the educational outcomes and experiences of students in foster care is needed so that policymakers and advocates can monitor disparities, identify appropriate intervention points, develop targeted solutions, and measure the effectiveness of any new programs or initiatives. In October 2023, the New York City Council passed Local Law 147, which amended existing education data reporting laws regarding enrollment, school discipline, and special education to require the DOE to disaggregate education data by foster care status, alongside other factors like student race/ethnicity, gender, disability status, and English Language Learner (ELL) status. The law went into effect on November 5, 2023.

III. Conclusion

Youth in the foster system have enormous potential that too often goes unrealized because the systems charged with their care and education fail to meet their needs, and even compound the challenges they face. But the troubling trends in attendance, exclusionary discipline, and academic achievement laid out in this article are by no means inevitable. By adopting the above recommendations and focusing support specifically on students in foster care, as we have begun to do in New York City, municipalities across the nation can begin to turn the tide and transform schools into a source of support for students in foster care. Youth in foster care deserve nothing less.

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    Sarah Part

    Advocates for Children of New York

    Sarah Part is a Senior Policy Analyst at Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), a social justice organization that strives to ensure a high-quality education for students who face barriers to academic success, focusing on students from low-income backgrounds. She has worked at AFC since 2009. Ms. Part holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A. in Sociology of Education from New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

    Erika Palmer

    Advocates for Children of New York

    Erika Palmer is a Supervising Attorney at AFC. For nearly 20 years, she has worked on AFC’s Project Achieve, which fights to improve educational opportunities for students in the foster system. In her current role, Ms. Palmer conducts dozens of trainings each year for child welfare professionals and educators in New York City on the rights of students in foster care, provides technical assistance to foster care agency staff, represents students in foster care in educational matters, and leads AFC’s system-change efforts on behalf of youth in the foster system. Ms. Palmer holds a B.A. from Boston University and a J.D. from New York University School of Law.