Foster Youth Not Yet Making the Grade
By Julia E. Koppich and Daniel C. Humphrey
California's new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) calls out foster youth as a distinct subpopulation of underserved students who need added supports and services to improve their educational outcomes. Our recently released report, Foster Youth and Early Implementation of the LCFF: Not Yet Making the Grade, finds both reason for cautious optimism and much work ahead as districts begin to meet the stark educational needs of these students.
Foster youth have been subjected to serious trauma by the time they enter care. They typically move frequently, changing schools at least once and sometimes as often as three times during a school year. Their academic achievement places them well below many of their peers, including non-foster youth living in poverty, English learners, and students with disabilities. They have lower rates of high school graduation and of college enrollment and persistence than other California students. Not surprisingly, these poor educational outcomes often lead to profoundly unsettling consequences in adulthood.
In order to ameliorate these dire educational circumstances, the LCFF singles out foster youth as a target group for extra attention. Our study found that a complex web of state policy and LCFF early implementation challenges frames the foster youth dilemma.
Most districts have not previously recognized foster youth as a distinct student population. In the first year of LCFF implementation, districts were just beginning to understand who their foster youth are and what it will take to meet these students' educational needs. Definition and data issues complicated this challenge.
California has no single definition of foster youth. The LCFF's definition includes all foster youth regardless of where they are placed. The state's Foster Youth Services (FYS) Program, on the other hand, which provides tutoring, counseling and other services through county offices of education (COEs), counts only youth in traditional foster care settings. Foster youth placed with relatives, for example, can be served by the LCFF but not by the programs offered by COEs. As a result of this state policy, many foster youth are denied access to crucial services.
State lacks foster youth data base
In addition, California lacks a comprehensive foster youth database. The California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) is meant to help districts identify their foster youth, but its first effort resulted in a serious undercount. Moreover, this system is not designed to collect key data, such as student attendance, course enrollment, and GPA history and transcripts, which could inform districts' picture of the foster youth they serve. These kinds of crucial educational data are collected by the Sacramento COE-managed Foster Focus database, but only 27 of the state's 58 counties participate in this effort. Compounding the data dilemma, county social service agencies with responsibility for foster youth report they do not have access to CALPADS data.
Our review of the first round of LCAPs (local control accountability plans) reveals few districts included specific plans to enhance services or supports for foster youth. More often, strategies to address foster youth needs were embedded in programs for the general target populations, especially low-income students. Those districts in our study that recognized the needs of foster youth in their LCAPs did so, for example, by adding counselors to focus on these students' social and emotional needs. Nascent signs suggest more districts will follow suit to improve supports for foster youth in subsequent LCAPs. Some in our study indicated their intent to provide trauma-informed professional development for teachers; others plan to ramp up tutoring to enhance foster students' academic progress.
COEs play a critical role in the LCFF, offering assistance to districts in LCAP development and approving or requiring changes to the final product. Where foster youth are concerned, COEs are especially key. They serve as the hub for acquainting districts with the range of social services available to foster youth and helping to coordinate these services so districts can leverage them in support of improving foster youth's educational outcomes. Some COEs in our study are still finding their way in this new arena. Others have taken a proactive approach, convening regular meetings that bring together school districts, social service and welfare agencies, juvenile court representatives, and legal advocates to share information and ensure the agencies that serve foster youth are on the same page.
Engaging guardians a challenge
The LCFF requires that parents, community members, educators, and students be engaged in developing districts' budget priorities and LCAPs. Engaging foster parents and guardians proved to be a challenge for many districts. Those that were most successful worked with foster youth advocates and organizations to help give voice to foster youth needs. One district in our study plans to organize focus groups of foster youth to assess their interests and needs in time for LCAP revisions this spring. Our study suggests, however, that engaging foster parents and students will take more work and consideration of multiple strategies.
While, as we noted, thinking about foster youth as a unique subpopulation of students is a new experience for most districts, a few in our study have a history of prioritizing foster youth needs. These districts, we found, employ a set of key strategies designed to bring a measure of stability to foster youth's often-unstable lives. These include targeted counseling, afterschool tutoring, credit recovery support, resources that enable foster students to participate in school activities such as sports and clubs, and efforts to help foster youth build in-school communities.
The LCFF has begun to shine a bright light on the needs of foster youth. As LCFF implementation moves forward, bettering educational outcomes of foster youth will mean school districts, COEs, social service agencies, and the state must attend to myriad issues that will require new kinds of coordination and cooperation. Our study suggests districts and other agencies are beginning to understand the outline of these challenges. With the LCFF's attention to foster youth, California has pulled back the curtain on this often-invisible population of students. The task ahead is clear.
Julia E. Koppich is President of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm. Daniel C. Humphrey is a senior researcher at SRI Education.