Arizona students in the foster care system are consistently underperforming academically. This previously undocumented achievement gap is reported in the 2012-13 report on Arizona’s Invisible Achievement Gap by WestEd.
The report shows that students in foster care are a distinct subgroup of academically at-risk students who are “especially at risk for school failure, as evidenced by poor grades and high rates of absenteeism, grade retention, disciplinary referrals, and dropping out of high school,” according to the report.
“Research consistently shows that students in foster care are struggling in school leaving them ill equipped to become self-sufficient,” Michelle Traiman, director of the National Center for Youth Law’s Foster Youth Education Initiative, said in a news release from the Arizona Office of Education. “The cost to these children and society is extraordinary. More than 22 percent of former foster children experience homelessness, 25 percent spend time incarcerated and unemployment rates exceed 50 percent”
According to the report, the educational needs of these students have gone unrecognized and unmet due to the little amounts of statewide information about their education. Vanessa Barrat, a researcher with WestEd and co-author of the report, said before the report was completed “nobody knew what was really a statewide situation” of foster students in an educational crisis.
“It is difficult to get that information from the state department because you might not know [the foster student’s] previous school because of confidentiality laws,” said Tracy Yslas, the director of professional development/curriculum for Mesa Public Schools who was also previously a principal and foster parent. “That would have to come from the Department of Child Safety when they are taking foster kids in. They’ve got to have access to those school records right away.”
Peter Hershberger, who has worked with at-risk children for 40 years, said “this [report] indicates a human tragedy for these foster kids.”
But despite the negative findings of the report, Mr. Hershberger is directing a pilot and soon-to-be state-wide initiative aiming to improve the educational outcomes of students in foster care. The initiative called FosterEd: Arizona focuses on building a support system for foster students by working with all the individuals in that student’s life such as teachers, parents or guardians, counselors and social workers. FosterEd is an initiative of the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit law firm that has worked on behalf of at-risk children since 1970 and is running its third pilot in the country in Arizona. FosterEd: Arizona is a pilot program in Pima County but will go statewide in July 2017. This initiative focuses on improving the “educational outcomes of foster children by ensuring each is supported by an educational champion and strengthened by an education team,” according to FosterEd.org.
An educational champion is a volunteer who advocates for a student’s needs with the educational team and can range from teachers, retired teachers, students, to parents who have experience with their own children and want to “share that knowledge,” according to Arayah Larson, volunteer coordinator with FosterEd.
Another problem the report identifies, and that FosterEd is focusing on, is that students in foster care were more likely than other students to change schools during the year. Nearly one in seven foster students attended three or more schools during one school year. This level of mobility is experienced by only 1 percent of the low-socioeconomic students and statewide student populations.
Beverlee Kroll, from the Department of Child Safety, said that when a safety issue prevents a child from remaining at home, “team-decision making meetings” (TDMs) are held and one of the main issues discussed is how to continue the child’s enrollment in their current school.
“There are a lot of factors that go into making the decision of what is in a child’s ‘best interests’ when it comes to school placement, including things like the distance to the school, any special-education services being provided by the school, the child’s connectedness to their school, etc.,” said Ms. Kroll. “The goal is always to maintain a child’s school setting unless it is not in their best interest to do so.”
Mrs. Yslas said that she has seen foster-children who have been enrolled in an as many as seven different schools in their lives.
“The biggest struggle that foster kids have, depending on their situation, is they may be moving from school to school a lot and so that may be contributing to some of their achievement gap,” Mrs. Yslas said. “But then also, just on the emotional side, they are dealing with a lot of things that are going on in terms of possibly being removed from their families and wherever their new living situation may be and having to adjust to that. And so of course that is going to affect their progress in school as well.”
According to Mr. Hershberger, that inconsistency can also have long-term effects on foster students’ mental health, but FosterEd: Arizona hopes to minimize those effects.
“This child has been abused and neglected, then they’re removed from their caregiver, that’s traumatic,” Mr. Hershberger said. “Then they’re put in with a stranger, that’s traumatic. Then they’ll move to another foster home, that’s traumatic. And sometimes the last straw is being removed from the school where all their peers are. So we want to keep them connected with that school.”
The recent signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act by President Obama on Dec. 10, 2015, “has significant foster-youth education provision” so that a student gets to stay in school of origin, said Mr. Hershberger.
ESSA reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which “now contains key protections for students in foster care to promote school stability and success and required collaboration with child welfare partners,” according to FosterCareAndEducation.org.
“Research tells us that school mobility and attendance are the two greatest contributors to poor outcomes,” Mr. Hershberger said. “We want to limit school mobility. That’s one thing we want to measure our program on and ESSA is going to allow us to do that.”
FosterEd follows a three-step model to ensure continuous educational support to foster children. According to their website, they first identify the educational champion in the child’s life or one is assigned to the child. The education liaisons then “create and monitor education teams for each foster child,” the website states. The teams consist of the major agents that impact the child’s life including the educational champion, a social worker, teachers, counselor, caregivers, court appointed special advocates, coaches, etc. Then, the student’s educational progress and needs are assessed and an education plan is created to meet those needs.
“That teaming concept is very important,” Mr. Hershberger said. He said a problem with the current system is that those agents might all be working with the same foster-child but they aren’t working alongside one another.
“They each have their case plans but they don’t talk to each other,” Mr. Hershberger said. “Sometimes those case plans are in opposition to each other and that allows that foster-child to fall through the cracks… That doesn’t work, and that doesn’t help the child feel confident, so getting them together to focus on the needs of that child, rather than the mission of their agency is very helpful.”
Some cases are tougher than others, Ms. Larson said.
“The most intensive cases, these kids are in group homes or being kicked out group homes,” she said. “They don’t have any family support around them, that is the biggest challenge.”
That’s where the importance of a highly involved educational champion comes into play.
Ms. Larson said volunteers typically take on one student at a time and commit around two to six hours a week to visit the child’s school and meet with the teachers and the student. According to Ms. Larson, the volunteer educational champions typically work on a case for a minimum of six months, but involvement has spanned as long as two and a half years. The extended advocacy of the volunteer allows them to “build a huge connection with those kids,” Ms. Larson said.
These meetings allow the volunteers to track progress of the student’s educational goals, but sometimes other occurrences in the child’s life interfere with the weekly meetings. Ms. Larson said volunteers summarize the child’s progress in monthly reports, but sometimes volunteers face limitations on how often they can meet with the child, especially if his/her schedule is filled with other important meetings on top of schoolwork.
Another limitation FosterEd: Arizona faces is the amount of cases the program could take on. Mr. Hershberger said they originally began with 100 cases at a time, but since reduced the load to 50 cases.
“It’s been very successful, but it’s a pilot so we modify things as we go along.” Mr. Hershberger said.
Mr. Hershberger said their model is shifting because “we’re finding that a personal connection to the child is important,” and said they are in the process of getting educational champions and liaisons more personally engaged with the child.
Since launching in January 2014, FosterEd: Arizona has worked with over 300 foster children in Pima County. As of September 2015, 67 percent of 1,114 educational goals set for FosterEd students were completed, according to an evaluation report titled “FosterEd Arizona: Year 2 Evaluation”.
The evaluation also provides an overall improvement in school attendance of youth in FosterEd.
“As youth entered FosterEd, most had an attendance rate below 95 percent,” according to the evaluation. “Of these students, the vast majority improved their attendance rate after joining FosterEd.”
The initiative pilot has also improved state educational systems since launching. According to their website, FosterEd “arranged data-sharing [Memorandum of Understanding] MOUs between the Department of Child Safety and the six largest school districts in Pima County so that the child welfare agency will have more timely and accurate information regarding the educational status of foster children.”
FosterEd has also “facilitated an MOU allowing the Department of Child Safety to identify for school districts who their foster children are, and allowing this information to be used confidentially to promote the educational and social success of students in foster care,” their website states.
The ultimate goal of FosterEd, according to their website, is “to increase the state’s capacity such that our presence is no longer necessary.”
Mr. Hershberger said FosterEd is creating a “systems change” in terms of data sharing and letting schools know who their foster-children are.
“We don’t work with just the kids in the FosterEd program,” Mr. Hershberger said. “We touch all the foster-kids in Arizona because we’re changing the system.”
Editor’s note: Brielle McDougall and Celisse Jones are journalism students at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and wrote the article as a class assignment.