How California School Districts Support Students in Foster Care
January 20, 2021
Students in foster care face unique challenges in their lives that can disrupt their learning. They have experienced the trauma of child abuse or neglect and the additional trauma of being removed from their homes, families and communities. They often experience multiple changes in placements, which translate into high rates of school mobility compared to other vulnerable students. In addition, court and family visits and disproportionate school discipline disruptions cause students in foster care to miss significant class time. These challenges negatively impact foster youth’s ability to succeed in school.
Due to the distinct obstacles that they face, students in foster care fared worse than their peers on multiple measures of educational engagement and achievement. For example, students in foster care were more than twice as likely as students overall to be chronically absent from school during the 2018-19 school year. In addition, they were more than four times as likely as students overall to have been suspended one or more times during the year. Students in foster care also struggled to stay on track in school, as they were far less likely to perform at grade level in English and math compared to their peers. Lastly, in the 2018-19 school year, only 56% of foster youth graduated high school, nearly 30 percentage points lower than students overall (85%). It’s critical that we take steps to close these educational engagement and achievement gaps so that students in foster care can reach their full potential and thrive.
To support foster youth educational success, California legislators passed AB 490 in 2003, which expanded foster youth education rights and required all public school districts to designate a foster youth education liaison to serve their students in foster care. District foster youth liaisons help promote school stability for students in foster care by ensuring and facilitating their access to the educational rights they are entitled to as foster youth. For example, liaisons ensure and facilitate foster youth’s enrollment in school, placement in appropriate classes, and disenrollment from school. When students in foster care transfer schools, liaisons help ensure the students’ school records, credits and grades are properly transferred. They also collaborate and communicate with county child welfare agencies to help ensure success in school.
District foster youth liaisons are critical in ensuring that foster youth can access their educational rights and overcome the barriers they face in school. Yet, liaisons are often stretched thin, particularly those in large districts with many schools. Many liaisons also serve as their district’s liaison for students experiencing homelessness, so they are tasked with serving a large population of highly mobile students. Additionally, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, liaisons are working to locate and address the needs of students in foster care and students experiencing homelessness, particularly those who struggle with distance learning and are not engaged in virtual instruction.
School districts must address the district foster youth liaison workload to ensure that these critical child-serving workers have the capacity to effectively do their jobs and advocate for foster youth in schools. Large school districts and districts with large populations of foster youth and/or homeless youth should consider designating separate liaisons for these two student groups to ensure that both foster youth and youth experiencing homelessness receive an adequate level of support so they can thrive in school. Further, these districts should consider assigning school-site liaisons for individual schools within the district to ensure that foster youth and youth experiencing homelessness can access the supports they need.