Program Builds School Supports for Foster Pupils
Sarah Mitchell, a community college student in Pomona, Calif., credits an innovative program that provides academic supports for Los Angeles-area high school students in foster care with putting her on the path to higher education.
—Jamie Rector for Education Week
By Sarah D. Sparks
December 8, 2010
Five districts in the Los Angeles area are weaving a web of interagency supports to catch a group of high school students who face an especially great risk for slipping through the cracks in school: youths in foster care.
The Education Pilot Program, a collaboration of school administrators and social workers, academic tutors, and student advocates, supports high school foster students by developing holistic learning plans, much like those created for special education students, and coordinating interagency supports. Modeled on a framework developed by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, the program has shown the potential to become a national model for keeping foster students on track to graduate and go on to college.
Its research track record earned it the highest available rating in the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, competition earlier this year, enabling the program to secure more than $3.6 million in grant money over the next four years to conduct a larger pilot and prepare to expand statewide.
Federal and state accountability systems rarely track the academic progress of students who are in foster care. They are not considered a separate group for accountability purposes, and their high mobility means they may not remain at a school long enough to be counted even in normal calculations of adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Yet some 800,000 children are entering or in the foster-care system nationwide, according to the most recent estimates of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families, and their academic and life outcomes are grim even compared with those of students in poverty and other high-risk groups.
The University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children found in a series of studies that between one-third and one-half of foster students nationwide perform below grade level, lagging behind their peers outside the system by as much as a year of academic achievement. Education Week's 2006 Diplomas Count report found that 37 percent of foster students drop out of high school, nearly all by 9th grade—double the national dropout rate. After such students leave the foster system, which in many states occurs at age 18, they are more likely than their nonfoster peers to end up homeless or in prison. In Los Angeles County, one in five former foster students is homeless, one-fourth are in prison, and half are unemployed within five years of leaving school.
"The [foster] kids who are not in our program tend to be the invisible kids," said Angel Rodriguez, the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services' project coordinator for the pilot. "They just won't ask for help, and they'll allow themselves to fall behind; … and because of the overburdened child-welfare system, their social worker may not be able to keep up with their academic needs when they are worried about safety and placement needs."
Gloria Molina, the chairwoman of the Los Angeles County board of supervisors, who spearheaded the first pilot project here, started looking into foster students' education in 2008. Achievement data had pointed to the dismal graduation rates of foster students and the huge achievement gaps between such students and their peers.
Ms. Molina said she found that while each agency, from school districts to child-welfare offices to the courts, offered programs and support to foster students, the system as a whole was "disjointed."
Children became lost in "the gaps in all of these well-intentioned programs, which have money and are available," she said, "but if you don't have an advocate, you are relying on foster parents who may not know or care about [academics], or schools that may not deal with you in any way but discipline."
Richard Martinez, the superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District, said that, having grown up in foster care himself, he knew firsthand the ways foster students could become invisible at school. During his own time in school, no one knew he was in foster care. "It wasn't something as a kid you talked about, especially when you saw other people who had a mom or dad," he said.
The Pomona district was among the first to join in the program. The others are: the Montebello Unified School District, El Monte Union High School District, Hacienda La Puente Unified School District; and Azusa Unified School District. Los Angeles city schools are considering joining, program officials said.
Sarah Mitchell, an 18-year-old who has been part of the foster system since age 5, said she was starting to get lost before entering the program in Pomona. She said a prank in 8th grade turned school officials against her, and she started high school a bit aimless.
"Freshman year, I didn't really care for college or anything," she said. "I was just going to school to have something to do." She started to fall behind in sophomore year, and fell further behind after transferring to Pomona High School and missing the first two weeks of junior year.
Ms. Mitchell said she focused less on grades than on fitting in as a new student until Rocio Angeles-De Loera, the district social worker assigned to her high school, showed up at her house.
"Rocio came over to my house, and we went over a goal sheet of everything I wanted to achieve, both long-term goals and short-term goals, and how I could maintain my focus on graduating," she said. "That was when I thought, 'OK, I want to go to college,' and I started buckling down and doing the right thing. She was always pushing me."
Under the Education Pilot Program, when a new foster student enters the system, a "core team" of the foster parent, primary and school social workers, counselor, and the student meet to determine his or her background and needs. The team develops a plan for tutoring to get the student caught up on missed credits; enrichment to help with college planning; and emotional and social-service interventions, if needed. The social workers and tutors keep regular office hours on each campus, and students have access to their mobile phone numbers at any time.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and the participating school districts crafted data-sharing agreements, and a "care team"—including school and DCFS social workers, counselors, tutors, and administrators —meets once or twice a month in each district to brainstorm on new resources and share ideas to help the students most in need that month.
Previous issues have included a boy who had lost 100 credits in transferring among multiple schools, and a senior girl five months away from graduation whose foster placement moved 30 miles away from school. In the first instance, Ms. Angeles-De Loera said, counselors and social workers paired up to track down the missing credits. In the second, school social workers arranged transportation for the girl to return to the old school once a week for independent study until she had credits to graduate on time.
As for Ms. Mitchell, she lost only one course in the transfer, a health class she had to retake, and was able to recover credits from her failed sophomore-year classes in a special summer school.
A preliminary evaluation by the Casey Family Foundation found that more than 90 percent of seniors participating in the program graduate, compared with one-third of foster students not in the program in Los Angeles County, and that more than 80 percent have enrolled in college, compared with 15 percent of foster students statewide. By the end of the 2009-10 school year, 100 percent of participating students had passed the portions of the California High School Exit Exam required for graduation.
Sarah Mitchell, who now attends Mount San Antonio College, in Pomona, and aims to become a cardio-thoracic surgeon, returns to help her former anatomy teacher tutor students. She also meets periodically with Ms. Angeles-De Loera about her plans and the progress of her younger sister, who is still in the program. She still feels close to the mentors who helped get her into college.
"They change our lives," Ms. Mitchell said of Ms. Angeles-De Loera and her colleagues. "They don't realize it, but they do."
Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.