April 01, 2014

Improving Education Outcomes for Foster Youth

Alanna Pawlowski

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Foster youth are educationally at risk. Only 50% graduate from high school and only 2-9% attain a bachelor’s degree, according to Jessica Feierman, supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center and a member of the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. Those rates contrast with the 84% of foster youth in high school who say they would like to graduate from college. 

On January 28, 2014, the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education held two congressional briefings to highlight these disparate education outcomes and prompt legislative change. Four panelists spoke at the briefings, a former foster youth, a policy expert, and representatives from a child welfare agency and a school district. Feierman moderated the briefings. 

Panelists discussed several themes, including the need for stronger adult relationships and networks for foster youth, increased stability in school placements, and standard data on education outcomes for foster youth. Each of these barriers to education success can be improved by systemic changes.  

Common Challenges

“I come from two legacies, one of my birth family, and one of foster care, and both are statistically telling me I probably won’t succeed,” said Kayla Van Dyke.  Kayla, a student at Hamline University, entered foster care at age four. She remained in care until age 18, with her final foster home placement coming at age 15. During placements with seven foster families while in the child welfare system, she moved through more than 10 schools. She was also homeless for a year in fourth grade. 

These disruptions challenged Kayla’s education success and relationships with others. Her many school moves made it difficult to keep track of her school records and maintain the required courses for each new school. Math and science became tough subjects, as courses tend to build on one another, meaning school transfers quickly break that continuity. One of eight children, Kayla had to cope with separation from her siblings while in high school. She found friends to be a great place to turn for support, though those relationships would often fall apart with the next school placement and when resources to stay in touch ran out. 

“Every time that I had to transition away, all this progress I had made, and the progress with my education, I felt like it was all just crumbling beneath me,” said Kayla. “Every time you move to a different home, it often comes along with the reality that you’re going to have to change schools, yet another time.”

Kayla began to associate a lack of trust not just with the school system, but with her social worker and other child welfare workers. Many issues Kayla faced personally were not ones social workers understood well or were ready to address. Despite her passion for learning, Kayla still had to deal with challenges related to mental health, trauma, and difficulty trusting people. 

“There are a lot of different factors going into foster youth success that aren’t just ‘Are they safe? Do they have food? Do they have the money to succeed?’ The human element is a huge factor in success,” said Kayla. 

The Human Element

Streams of social workers told Kayla they supported her, but would then move on. “No one really latched on to me to make me feel safe, to make me feel supported. A lot of people were trying to relate to me in only the most generic sense before quickly moving on.”

Kayla explained the back-lying trauma, mental health issues, emotional instability, and trust issues that come along with being in foster care for a long time. 

The real difference in Kayla’s life came when she found genuinely supportive adults. At age 15, Kayla met her final foster mother, Constance. Constance was different—loving and supportive and willing to let Kayla make mistakes, “as a normal parent would,” and stay in her home.

Finding one person Kayla was able to trust enabled her to start trusting others and building her support network, the network that would help her succeed.

Finding a Voice

As her trust in others and the foster care system grew, Kayla began talking to social workers and going to court. She began communicating her needs and standing up for herself. 

“For the first time in the foster care system, I didn’t feel belittled or marginalized, I felt like I was powerful and like I could achieve so much more. And I did.”With a supportive foster parent and the newfound confidence to communicate her best interests, Kayla excelled in school. She won a scholarship, became a straight-A student and student council president.

Despite her successes, Kayla still dealt with the effects of having attended four high schools. Because of all of the transfers and different school curricula, her class credits did not add up to meet the graduation requirements of her final school. It was only with the support of a social worker and a teacher—part of the support network she built with the stability of her last placement—that Kayla was able to negotiate extra tutoring hours to graduate on time. 

Kayla credits her success to her support network and her ability to stand up for herself, both of which were only possible with the stability she found in her last two years of high school. 

“Until you have that moment where you can advocate for yourself, when youth can advocate for themselves, you just see a lot of defeat in people. I think one of the most powerful things we can instill in anybody is the power to advocate for themselves, to ask for what they want, because so few youth in foster care feel entitled to ask for anything.”

Barriers to Education Success

The obstacles faced by Kayla are not just specific to her. Every child in foster care has a unique story and needs, but also faces many common systemic challenges that emerge when the education and child welfare systems cross paths. The panelists highlighted the following barriers to educational success:

  • Unstable school placements: Due to distance and transportation constraints, changing homes often means changing schools.

  • Transportation: Transportation challenges prevent students from staying at a school and participating in afterschool tutoring or extracurricular activities. 

  • Delayed enrollment and credit transfer: Each time a student changes schools, the student falls further behind—each school move can result in six months of lost learning. Class credits don’t transfer or graduation requirements may differ district-to-district. 

  • No clearly defined education decision maker or advocate: With no one to make important education decisions on the student’s behalf or to advocate for education services, the youth misses learning opportunities.

  • Disruption of relationships with supportive teachers, afterschool activities, and friends: Social supports and activities are key to youths’ well-being. Frequent disruptions to relationships and meaningful activities create a loss for youth and force them to start over.

  • Periods of homelessness: Foster youth experience high rates of homelessness. Without a home they are unlikely to attend school.

  • Unmet special education and remedial education needs, despite their high incidence among foster youth. 

  • Lack of support for pursuing higher education and older youth transitioning from the child welfare system. 



Cross-System Collaboration: Model Programs

The education and child welfare systems can work together to better address the challenges students in foster care face. Some states and cities are well on their way to this type of system integration.

Cincinnati: Kids in School Rule!

Kids in School Rule! is a model program for school-agency collaboration created by four partners: Cincinnati Public Schools, Hamilton County Jobs and Family Services, Hamilton County Juvenile Court, and Legal Aid. The program was developed after panelist William Myles, assistant superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, pulled data on students in foster care from the county’s robust data system. The data uncovered wide differences in education outcomes for foster youth in the district:

  • Attendance rate 30-40% lower than the district average
  • Graduation rate less than 50%
  • Higher number of school suspensions than the district average
  • Lack of involvement in extracurricular activities

With these disparate outcomes identified, said Myles, the first step was to meet with students in foster care and school principals to identify the barriers to success. “We asked them, ‘What is needed? What can we do to help you?’,” said Myles. The group identified common barriers to educational success and ways to break them down. Kids in School Rule! was created to implement these key steps: 

  • Automatically enroll foster youth if they change schools. 

  • No questions-asked policy; any issues are sent to the superintendent’s office and addressed while the student is enrolled immediately.

  • Allow youth to stay in their original schools no matter where they move.

  • Connect each student with a school liaison, who must check in with the student weekly. The liaison:
    • uses data system to look at attendance and other metrics and address issues with the student as they arise; 
    • works as the student’s parent-advocate within the school system;
    • monitors transcript and course data to ensure credit requirements are met and the student has needed courses and enrichment activities;
    • makes sure the student is aware of and signs up for school activities. 

  • Work with the district’s transportation department and, for older youth, metro transportation to address transportation to schools and extracurricular activities.

  • Talk with teachers and provide professional development on trauma.
  • Meet with principals upfront to stress the importance of the program and the role of the education liaisons.

  • Waive fees for extracurricular activities.

  • Take students on college visits and promote college planning.

Cincinnati Public Schools implemented these steps even with a tight budget. The district used a grant for professional development to build capacity and provide training for individuals upfront. The liaisons were people already in the schools, whether a school social worker, school psychologist, or a teacher who wanted to get involved.

So far, Kids in School Rule! is proving effective. It helped 23 students graduate in 2013 by involving them in a summer learning program. Foster youth in the school district now have the same attendance rate as the district average and are more involved in activities. More time is needed to get data on graduation rates. 

Philadelphia’s Education Support Center

In Philadelphia, panelist Anne Marie Ambrose, commissioner of the 

Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS), has been working with education partners to bridge communication gaps between the two systems and address the education issues experienced by children and youth in foster care.

The main vehicle for DHS’s interagency communication is the Education Support Center (ESC), created in 2009. The ESC serves as the agency’s single point of contact in the education system and facilitates communication with the School District of Philadelphia. The ESC has helped speed up school enrollment, improve school stability by implementing the Fostering Connections Act (see Effective Legislation below), create safety plans to prevent bullying, ensure access to early education programs, and coordinate services. 

Philadelphia DHS is also beginning to collaborate with early intervention and behavioral health partners to streamline data-sharing and referral procedures to ensure follow-through. The collaboration will also identify tutoring and mentoring resources.

Ambrose reinforced the challenges presented by the lack of data at the local and state levels. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act will help remove some barriers to information sharing, said Ambrose, but there are still structural barriers. DHS has a memorandum of understanding with the school district for information sharing, but their data systems cannot interact directly with each other. Interactive systems are costly and complicated to create, said Ambrose. 

Models of Success

Programs like these that harness the power of cross-system collaboration can be found across the country. Successful models incorporate some of the following elements:

  • Supportive adults—education liaisons and advocates
  • Added supports to caregivers
  • Trauma-informed programming
  • Positive youth development, for older youth in particular
  • Stability and continuity in both place and relationships

To craft well-informed programs and legislation, panelist Dianna Walters discussed the need for more hard data on foster youth and education outcomes, noting that much of what is shared is anecdotal. A systemic way to collect national data in every school district and every child welfare system is needed. 

Effective Legislation

In the last five years, federal legislation that supports education for youth in care has been adopted. Feierman highlighted the Fostering Connections Act and the Uninterrupted Scholars Act as great steps forward, but added there is still work to do. 

Both acts promote quick enrollment and access to education records.


Improving education achievement for children in foster care must be addressed through concerted efforts by advocates, policymakers, and child-serving systems. The panelists stressed the need for legislation to remove barriers to education success and enhance data collection systems nationwide. 

Programs that bridge child welfare and education systems are proving they can positively affect education outcomes for foster youth. Programs that support stronger adult relationships for foster youth and stability in school placements are getting results. More data is needed, however, to continue identifying and solving education challenges for foster youth. 

Empowering youth by helping them develop strong support networks and teaching them how to advocate for themselves is also key to promoting school success.

Alanna Pawlowski, program assistant and subscriptions coordinator at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, is a staff contributor to CLP.