Supporting students in foster care requires time and resources

California’s Students in Foster Care: Challenges and Promising Practices, a report released by the Learning Policy Institute in July 2022, considers statewide pre-pandemic education data and conversations with county offices of education foster youth services coordinators to find promising practices that can implemented.

In 2018–19, roughly 0.7 percent of the state’s K-12 population was in foster care. Some existing hurdles that students in foster care experienced that affected educational outcomes included dealing with personal trauma that inhibits one’s ability to concentrate and learn or having to change schools causing learning disruption.

The pandemic has exacerbated social and environmental challenges for these students — many of whom had reduced access to in-person instruction and supports while school campuses were closed in 2019–20 and 2020–21.

“As the state and schools work to recover from the pandemic, sustained attention will be necessary to ensure these students have access to the services they need to succeed,” the report states.

Analyzing 2018–19 data, researchers found that students living in foster care were more likely to transfer schools during the academic year than other students, and some moved more than once. Almost half of the foster care students attended the highest-poverty schools and were more likely to attend low-performing schools. They also experienced higher rates of chronic absenteeism and suspension and gradated at lower rates than their counterparts.

On the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, 24 percent of students in foster care met or exceeded standards for English language arts (compared to 51 percent of other students) and 15 percent met or exceeded math standards (compared to 40 percent of other students).

Meeting student needs

The report identified several organizational, logistical and data challenges in effectively coordinating and collaborating to meet the needs of foster youth.

For example, while the Local Control Funding Formula increases visibility for students who are in foster care, it doesn’t necessarily give additional resources to address their needs, “because students in foster care are small in number and their needs may span multiple systems, districts may struggle to address their individualized needs,” the report states.

Additionally, current data systems are insufficient in supporting student case management and collaboration between local educational agencies and child welfare agencies. Students’ ability to keep attending their original school when placed in care outside of its attendance area is also difficult due to lack of transportation options.

Lastly, “capacity constraints in the child welfare system, such as high caseloads among social workers and lack of placement options, especially for students with the greatest needs, can make it challenging to prioritize education in placement decisions, can limit available time for best interest determinations, and can contribute to students changing schools,” the report states.

Possible solutions

Foster youth services coordinators surveyed offered research-aligned programs and processes that may be used to inform future supports, such as giving students targeted social-emotional and academic services (as part of a Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS).

Creating a “one-stop” resource center that provides a readily available web of supports can also strengthen interagency coordination and communication, which can improve individual student case management.

Using school-level practices to nurture trusting relationships between students in foster care and the school community and staff may improve student outcomes. School-based liaisons trained to support students in foster care are used in some districts to assist them in things like credit recovery and knowing their rights.

Policy recommendations

Based on their analysis, the report’s authors suggested local and state policy recommendations including:

  • Implementing organizational structures to support cross-system collaboration. This encompasses supporting cross-agency structures to better collaboration and delivery of services, supporting community school implementation and backing the creation of local interagency transportation agreements to ease school mobility issues.
  • Considering revising LCFF to give additional funds for students who fall into multiple high-needs groups.
  • Using strategies that can improve student case management. One example is making a state grant program that supports the creation and dissemination of best practices for data-informed collaborative case management for California. The possibility of housing education and child welfare staff may also be considered.
  • Utilizing strategies that can quickly identify and provide strong supports for students, such as relationship centered practices under a MTSS, may be considered as well as increasing access to professional development for school staff so they can better serve students in foster care. This is especially important as students attempt to recover from the pandemic.