Education vs. Foster Youth

The Fight Continues
Jim Roberts
August, 31, 2015 -

Thousands of children and youth across the nation have begun or will soon begin school. Sadly, for foster children and youth, this ritual represents a foreboding process invoking fears of rejection, ostracization and trauma. For most foster children, school is not a fun or engaging place.

Let’s face it, for decades our public education system has treated foster children and youth as second-class citizens. Frankly, they require a lot more work. Foster kids are typically transitory, most of them are behind academically and most have learning disabilities or special education needs. Foster parents aren’t the final authority and the children often require “Surrogate Parents” or a guardian ad litem. On average, foster kids perform about 20% below their peers on standardized achievement test, which of course makes the schools look bad (some districts intentionally exclude foster children on testing days). And add to this the fact that these children are also victims of childhood abuse and trauma which very often manifests itself through challenging behaviors and/or unstable emotions, and you have some very challenging students.

Our educational system’s treatment of traumatized youth has been adding insult to injury. In the Family Care Network’s nearly three decades of working with foster kids, it has been on more than one occasion that we have had to secure legal counsel to ensure that one of our client’s educational rights were followed.

How can our country be proud of these facts: Foster youth are nearly 25% less likely to complete high school when compared to their peers; 24% of foster youth struggle with disabilities while in school, but very few receive proper services; Across the United States, 52% of foster youth attend schools that rank in the lowest 30 percent1; only 50% will receive a high school diploma; and only 10% of former foster youth will attend college and, of this 10%, only 3% will graduate2! Additionally:

  • Foster youth change schools far more often than other students.
  • Foster youth have the lowest graduation rate.
  • Foster youth are twice as likely to drop out of school as their peers.
  • Twice as many foster children repeat a grade.
  • 75% percent of foster children are behind grade level.
  • 67% of foster children are suspended from school and 17% are expelled, more than three times the general student population3.

Children in the United States languish far behind the rest of the world in terms of academic performance, this leaves American foster children and youth at the very bottom.

In 2013, California attempted to ameliorate this problem under the umbrella of School Finance Reform entitled Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). LCFF was intended to create educational equity by recognizing that foster youth, low-income and English language learner students need additional resources to reach their college and career dreams. Under LCFF, every school district is required to establish a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) with three goals:

  1. Close the achievement gap between foster youth and the general student population
  2. Promote school stability and prevent push out of foster youth to alternative schoo
  3. Ensure foster youth are promptly enrolled in school and in the right classes

To accomplish these goals, school districts must:

  1. Establish district-wide infrastructure to support and monitor the educational progress of foster youth
  2. Ensure district foster youth liaisons have the adequate time, knowledge and resources to do their job
  3. Ensure that upon full implementation of LCFF, every foster youth receives services from a foster youth counselor
  4. Allocate funds to meet LCAP goals and for all services foster youth are entitled to under the law

Unfortunately, asking school districts to create an “Accountability Plan” is tantamount to asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. With decades of dismal services to foster youth, it isn’t reasonable to assume that they will become instantly enlightened and do what they should have been doing all along. In a recent California Department of Education survey of Foster Youth Services coordinators who provide support to foster youth in their counties, they reported a variety of reasons why districts did not include specific goals and support services for foster youth in their accountability plans. Those reasons included not believing that foster youth needed “unique or additional services or supports” and not understanding what foster youth might need. Additionally, the State Department of Education has not created an effective method for identifying which children are even in foster care!

A March, 2015 National Center for Youth Law report entitled: Foster Youth and the Early Implementation of the LCFF, Not Yet Making the Grade, found that most school districts are just beginning to grapple with how to address the needs of foster youth, despite the fact that foster youth have the lowest educational and life outcomes of any student group. It revealed serious gaps between the state’s intent to highlight foster youth as a target group and the state’s, counties’ and districts’ systems of support for this particularly under-performing group of students.

It really is the “blind leading the blind.” Public Educators don’t understand foster children and youth, their specific constellation of needs and how to effectively work with them, (i.e., applying trauma- informed interventions). I’m convinced that they don’t want to. Last year, my organization partnered with a local State University to offer an array of CEU training opportunities on serving foster youth in the school setting. Broadcast throughout the whole of Central California, there was not enough interest to meet the minimum workshop requirement! Multiple districts indicated no interest whatsoever. One SELPA District was interested in services, but was not willing to cover the cost; instead, opting to hire cheap counselors with no training or experience working with foster children and youth. It feels like another “take the money and run” scam.

But hats off to the LA Unified School District for taking this issue seriously and deploying an army of qualified foster youth counselors to serve their students.

The Coalition for Educational Equity for Foster Youth, the Advancement Project, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, Children’s Law Center of California, California Youth Connection, California Youth and Family Collaborative, and the National Center for Youth Law, along with many other advocacy groups and providers, are working hard to make sure the educational rights and needs of foster children and youth are met. Please make your voice heard in this fight – contact your local school district board, SELPA Director, County Supervisor, state legislator, and/or County Superintendent of Schools and speak up in support of foster children and youth!

  1. The Stuart Foundation
  2. National Center for Youth Law (2010)