Shaquita Ogletree
On Monday, October 1, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth held a congressional briefing to discuss the Every Student Success Act (ESSA) and School Stability for Foster Youth. According to the most recent report from AFCARS, there were over 260,000 school-aged children in foster care, some of the nation’s most educationally disadvantaged students. Studies show that students in foster care experience school suspensions and expulsions at higher rates than their peers not in foster care. Children in care generally have lower standardized test scores in reading and math, high levels of grade retention and drop-out rates, and far lower high school and college graduation rates.

The Legal Center for Foster Care and Education serves as a voice at the federal, state, and local level, a national foster care and education network, and a national leader in providing training and expertise to support strong collaborations between agencies and courts. The Legal Center’s Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Children in Foster Care identified eight goals that help states strengthen and improve policy and practices.

The panel discussion reviewed how legislation enacted over the past ten years has had an impact on education access for children in foster care. Since 2008 several laws have been passed including the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (Fostering Connections Act (2008), Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA (2013), and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015)—the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Fostering Connections Act required child welfare agencies to assure that either a child remain in the same school when they enter foster care or have immediate enrollment in a new school. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act amended the the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) making it easier for child welfare agencies to access and make educational decisions without some of previous written consent requirements by parents. ESSA embeds in federal education law provisions that promote school stability and success for children and youth in foster care and collaboration between education and child welfare agencies to achieve these goals. The changes in that latest reauthorization of the ESEA mirrored some of the education protections first enacted in the 2008 Fostering Connections Act.

Since the implementation of ESSA states have demonstrated greater success in designating points of contacts for students in both child welfare and educational agencies. An ongoing challenge continues to be which agency (child welfare or education) will cover the costs of school transportation of a child in care especially when they must travel different routes to continue to attend their school of origin. Despite the roadblocks the three laws—especially the ESSA have encouraged better coordination and communication between child welfare and local education agencies on behalf of children in foster care.

The briefing highlighted and spotlighted two organizations that provide critical support to help children and youth in foster care succeed. Panelists included Kathleen McNaught from the American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law, representatives from Washington State’s Treehouse for Learning, and representatives from Colorado’s Department of Education and Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Washington State’s Treehouse for Learning, an organization with a strong track record of supporting foster youth and improving high school graduation rates shared how they are leveling the playing field for youth in foster care. Ms. Dawn Rains illustrated that fewer than 50% of youth in foster care graduate high school, and fewer than 3% achieve a four-year college degree.
Treehouse’s Graduation Success program model ensures youth in foster care succeeds in school and life. Brianna Franco, a junior at Seattle Pacific University and a program recipient of Treehouse shared how Ms. Tajiana Ellis, former Treehouse Education Specialist, worked with her once a week and advocated for her to remain at her school district when her placement changed her senior year. Now as a manager of the Graduation Success model Ms. Ellis stated that the program is youth driven and focuses on the student’s attendance, behavior, and grades in a multi-disciplinary approach. The class of 2016 extended graduation rate was 89% compared to 49% of their peers.

The Washington state’s specific provisions for youth in foster care include the following:
• Data sharing agreement between state child welfare and education agencies;
• Foster care education liaison in every school district;
• Partial credit negotiations for mid-term transitions;
• Schools fee waived;
• Collaborative best interest determination process (new law June 2018); and more.

On any given day in Colorado, there are between 10,000 to 11,000 children in the state’s foster care system. With the passage of HB 1306, Colorado Department of Education and Department of Children, Youth and Families are better equipped to support the new Colorado state programs for school stability and education outcomes for foster youth. Colorado has been successful in securing Child Welfare Education Liaison in each school district serving as single points of contact for best interest determination and transportation issues and compliance with ESSA. Another win for Colorado was that they had secured $2.7 million for transportation funding, a hurdle for many states, and the ability to support high mobility students (i.e., foster care and military) in graduation requirements. Students in foster care often change schools when first entering foster care, in Colorado, the rate was 31 percent, and if their placement changes for any reason while in custody, and the ability to stay on track or for credits to transfer is an issue that many students face across the nation.

States like Colorado and Washington have recognized that this barrier to educational success can be remedied. As ESSA’s protections for children in foster care are being implemented across the nation, state and local level child welfare and educational agencies are making progress and should be highlighted and shared to improve the school stability and education outcomes of all these students. For more information about ESSA’s Foster Care Provision, visit the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education.