On June 23rd, 2016 the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released non-binding guidance on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and children in foster care. This guidance is meant to help education and child welfare agencies adjust to the new law, which, for the first time, mandates annual data reporting of education outcomes (test scores and graduation rates) for youth in foster care. While several articles, including my own, have explored how ESSA and previous guidance address foster care, less attention has been paid to the promising processes that, if widely adopted, would satisfy the requirements of the new law and improve the lives of this population. Fortunately, the new guidance spotlights several education-related best practices for youth in foster care—beyond just data collection and reporting—five of which I will outline below:
- Best Interest Determination – Best interest determination is the process of deciding which school is best for a student to attend after they enter foster care. According to the new guidelines, this should be a collaborative process between a child’s school and the local child welfare agency. A child who enters foster care should remain at the same school (known as their school of origin) unless it is determined by the school and child welfare agency, in conjunction with the child, that it is not in the child’s best interest to do so. A determination should be made within three business days, and the travel time between home and school should be figured into any decision.
Some research shows just how adverse transferring schools can be for youth in foster care, resulting in losses of “up to six months of educational progress.” At the same time, other research suggests that a balance should be struck between ensuring a high quality school environment and minimizing disruption. Regardless of the decision, there must be a quick and systematic process of collaboration between the school, child welfare agency, and child.
- Dispute Resolution – Some states have codified a process to mediate disagreements between a child welfare agency and school, which occur during the best interest determination. In one state “the child welfare system must notify all parties (i.e., the child or child’s attorney and the parents or their attorney) of its decision [of which school the child should attend] and the reasons for it, in writing, within three business days after making the decision.” Under this model, there is an appeals process in which the parent or child can request an administrative hearing. Whenever a child’s circumstances change, the child welfare agency must revisit the decision of which school the student should attend. Many states, such as Washington, have a dispute resolution process for school placement of homeless youth; the same should exist for all youth in foster care.
- Transportation – In the new guidance, 1.5 miles is the cutoff point where the responsibility for transportation changes hands. That is, if the child’s new address is within 1.5 miles of the school, the foster parent must take the child to the school. However, if the child’s new address is more than 1.5 miles from the school, the school district will develop a plan to minimize disruptions for that student.
Guaranteeing transportation for youth in foster care, including deciding who pays for it, will remain one of the biggest education challenges related to this population. However, online education programs for foster youth, which are being piloted in Connecticut, may have the potential to reduce the transportation-related barriers to education.
- Immediate Enrollment – If it is determined that it is in the best interest of a child in foster care to switch schools, the child must be enrolled immediately in the new school. Certain states have laws that outline this process: the caseworker must inform both the student’s old school (school of origin) and new school within one business day of making the decision, and the old school must send essential education records to the new school within one day of finding out that the student is moving. California, for instance, has explicit policies related to immediate enrollment that ensure that youth in foster care can transition seamlessly to a new educational environment.
- Collaboration – The new guidance commends states with dedicated foster care teams, which include partners from school districts, child welfare agencies, juvenile courts, and legal organizations. Effective collaboration also means having a foster care liaison at each school who is in close touch with child welfare and hosting a series of annual trainings for all stakeholders (e.g. “Magistrates, supervisors, caseworkers, Guardian ad Litems, Court Appointed Special Advocates, mentors, foster parents, school psychologist and social workers, and principles”) who interact with youth in foster care. Existing tools, such as the US. Department of Education Foster Care Toolkit, can help facilitate the collaboration and partnerships that are necessary to support youth in foster care.
Supporting students in foster care is essential: I still recall working with a 10th grade student in foster care whose parents had previously passed away, leaving her depressed and forced to leave both her school of origin and home behind. Given the disruptions they face, in addition to the potential trauma, homelessness, and justice involvement they experience, it is no wonder that only 65% of youth in foster care graduate from high school by the age of 21, and only 20% of those who graduate high school go on to college. In order to improve these outcomes, youth in foster care must be more than just the subject of data reporting—states should leverage best practices and make them an educational priority.
Zachary Malter is a Policy Research Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.