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January 13, 2016 Articles

Needed and Welcome Change: Supporting the Education of Foster Youth

By Noy Davis

Important, constructive changes are afoot. And it's about time.

Statistically, the disparate systems serving our foster youth—the social service agencies charged with their care and the school systems charged with educating them—haven't served our kids in care well:

  • Only half of foster youth graduate high school;
  • Less than 3 percent of foster youth earn a bachelor's degree; and
  • Over half of foster youth end up homeless, incarcerated, or on welfare.

These dismal outcomes have fueled advocates—lawyers, social service providers and agency personnel, educators, and others. The picture doesn't have to be this seemingly fated, unconscionable image. Foster care can and should arm our children with supportive services that fuel their development, help them heal and thrive in school and beyond, acknowledge their great resiliency, and honor the increased understanding of self that comes from transcending hardship.

We all have so much to gain from caring for all of our children. The costs to society of incarceration, welfare, and homelessness are staggering, and these costs don't consider the loss of the constructive potential of these people, for even a portion of their lives. The good that can be done and the benefit to society by any individual person are also equally staggering. The cost of lost lives is unfathomably great.

The good news is that there is a movement to launch all of our children into bright, productive, and fulfilling lives.

In general, the battle is being waged on different fronts: improving education for foster youth during the elementary, middle, and high school years, and supporting our foster youth and former foster youth as they continue their education beyond high school.

Observations about the causes and factors contributing to the current dismal outcomes have been discussed over the years and include the following:

  • Foster children experience multiple home placements, and too often change homes many times in any given year.
  • This placement instability leads to repeated midsemester school disruptions with associated lack of credits and other adverse effects, including the apathy that comes from repeatedly starting over in new schools and not being integrated into any given school, its people, and activities.
  • Having multiple agencies (schools and social service agencies) presents practical issues that impede educating foster youth, as the systems are often not set up to deal with the special issues that arise with foster children, including multiple midyear placement changes.
  • Shifting or unclear education decision makers for foster youth has complicated education decision making as well as educational monitoring and advocacy when the usual education champions—parents and guardians—may not be readily available or involved.
  • Beyond issues with the authority for decision making or record release, the adults who are in the lives of foster children often don't have the experience or understanding of how to monitor or promote education for the youth. Given the often chaotic lives that many foster children experience with multiple annual placements, the absence of an education champion can be disastrous.
  • Once in college, foster youth and former foster youth often simply don't have the support that children with effective parents enjoy, ranging from a home to return to over holidays, unexpected fees and expenses, and the guidance and reassurance of adults who have experienced college.
  • To the extent that foster youth are graduates of school systems that have done a poor job of educating their students, these young people, despite stellar grades achieved in their high schools, may struggle to keep up with their peers at college.
  • Foster youth often find themselves growing up in environments that don't support college. Many foster youth simply do not have an understanding as to what college is nor what it can mean for them. This is often hand in hand with an environment where little is expected of them academically, contributing on many levels to the college experience being one that is completely foreign and for which they are not well prepared.

At the federal level, advocates are building on several laws that are aimed at eliminating some of the issues arising from the multiple systems. The Fostering Connections Act requires child welfare agencies to include educational stability in each child's case plan. Agencies must consider the appropriateness of the child's current school and its proximity to any placement being considered. In addition, agencies and schools are to work together so that the child remains in his or her school, unless attending that school is not in the child's best interest. Caregivers can be given additional funding if they are willing to transport children to their school so that they do not have to transfer. If a school change is in order, the act requires that the child be enrolled immediately with all education records transferred.

A 2014 GAO report assessed the implementation of the act, which was passed in 2008. Although there has been progress, many students are still changing schools far too frequently. Moreover, the required coordination between educational and child welfare agencies continues to be problematic. In 19 states, the coordination was found to pose a major challenge to ensuring educational stability. U.S. Gov't Accountability Office, GAO-14-347, Foster Care: HHS Needs to Improve Oversight of Fostering Connections Act Implementation (2014).

The Uninterrupted Scholars Act, passed in 2013, was the federal response to state social service agencies not being able to obtain educational information about foster youth from schools. That act permits school systems to disclose certain information from the education records of foster care children, without parental consent, to the state agencies charged with the care of those children. Given the lack of communication and coordination reported, the full implementation of this act remains an open question.

Beyond the federal law, a few states have been focused on making educational progress for foster youth. California has passed a number of laws and instituted programs to attempt to remedy specific issues impacting the education of foster youth. Among the most beneficial is a law that expressly permits a court to appoint a responsible adult or educational representative for a foster youth, and requires that school districts must afford the same rights to these educational rights holders as to a student's parents. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 319(g), 361(a). Among other things, California law also requires that educational matters must be considered at every court hearing, with a listing of specific education-related reporting requirements at these hearings. See Cal. R. Ct. 5.651(c), 5.668(c). It permits state agencies access to the child's school records, without parental consent, and allows further disclosure to those whom the agency engages to address the child's educational needs. 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(b)(1)(L); Cal. Educ. Code § 49076(a)(1)(N). The myriad of California law provisions provides a reminder of the many ways that the education system can fail foster youth. Among other things, the law proactively requires an education liaison; sets specific timelines for record transfers; requires that a foster youth be enrolled in a new school regardless of outstanding fees, fines, and textbooks due a school, and regardless of whether the child has uniforms or records; details grade and course credit protections when a child changes schools; and provides that a child's grades may not be lowered due to absences caused by a change in placement, court appearance, or a court-ordered activity. More information about these legal requirements is provided in the California Foster Youth Education Task Force's Education Law Factsheets.

Additionally, some innovative programs have been developed to move education forward for foster youth. I have been privileged to help the First Star Greater Washington Academy, a four-year program for high school–aged foster youth (and former foster youth) in the Washington, D.C., area. The First Star Greater Washington Academy is one of seven First Star Foster Youth Academies nationwide. Each summer, the foster youth in the academy program reside in dorms on a college campus and experience a structured curriculum that has included math and English classes, a college-level course (architecture, ceramics, and film have been the offerings to date), college preparation, and life skills workshops. A clinician in residence during the summer assists with individual and group reflection and interpersonal communication, and the students use computers given to them during the first year. During the academic year, the program includes monthly events and weekly staff follow-up surrounding an individualized plan for each youth. Academy staff support the youth in advocating for themselves regarding their educational goals and assist in supporting education decision makers, agency workers, and school officials. With the multiple home placements and school changes that some of the youth experience, the academy program and its staff become the constants in the lives of the youth, and have been uniquely positioned to support dialogue on educational issues.

Other First Star Foster Youth Academies are operated at UCLA, University of Connecticut, University of Central Florida, University of Rhode Island, Rowan University in New Jersey, and Loyola University Chicago.

While the programs have not been in existence long, the results to date show marked success. One hundred percent of youth who have completed the academy programming have graduated high school, and 90 percent have enrolled in college. These outcomes are staggering compared to the national statistics of 50 percent high school graduation, and 10 percent college enrollment.

Elissa Garr, First Star Greater Washington Academy president, and Brian Ritchey, program director, expect that the D.C. area group will be similarly successful. While the academy reports working with two very supportive and proactive local government agencies, the issues that beset the youth in the program, according to Garr and Ritchey, mirror those nationally: an inability to readily find the education decision maker, difficulties in coordination among the teams, particularly the schools, that need to work together to achieve optimal success for the youth, the lack of an understanding of what education can offer and how to work within schools effectively, weaknesses in schools that permit some youth to advance without a solid grounding in some of the educational basics, and the multiple big picture placement changes and tremendous personal tragedies and challenges that the youth face.

Despite the challenges, the programs are showing strong indications of success. The adults working with these youth report that while trying at times, it is a humbling privilege to work with the kids. The bravery with which the youth look forward in life despite the tremendous abuse and neglect is profoundly moving and keeps these adults working so hard.

Another inspiring and innovative program that has been developed is FosterEd, with programs in Arizona, California, and Indiana. FosterEd is an initiative of the National Center for Youth Law, and its three-step model identifies, trains, and supports education champions, develops education liaisons to work with educational teams for each foster child, and promotes the development of an individualized education plan for each youth that the team can work toward. This program is also relatively new, but the Indiana program reports that through the end of 2012, its education liaisons had worked with over 700 foster children and had resolved 89 percent of the educational issues facing children having the most acute unmet educational needs.

Finally, a few programs that provide support to foster youth have been developed at colleges and universities. Two such programs are California College Pathways and the Center for Fostering Success at Western Michigan University. In addition to combatting the sense of isolation for many foster youth when they enter college by providing a place for foster youth to congregate with other foster youth, the programs provide mentors and staff to help navigate an intimidating environment and assist with solving practical problems that may arise, counseling, and academic support so that foster youth are better able to succeed once they get to college.

These and other laws and programs show great promise, and advocates across all disciplines throughout the country can learn from one another to change the course of lives for our foster children. A few laws stand out: the California law noted above that permits an education rights holder to be appointed for a foster youth and the law requiring partial credits for midsemester transfers. These laws alleviate certain stumbling blocks and promote foster youth education and achievement.

There is so much still to be done, but the steps forward are becoming clearer, with the fervent hope among advocates that we will be so successful that we put ourselves out of business.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, foster youth, education, placement instability, educational stability

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