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California’s Students in Foster Care: Challenges and Promising Practices

Published
By Dion Burns Daniel Espinoza Julie Adams Naomi Ondrasek
Elementary school boy getting off a yellow school bus.

In California, approximately 47,000 students live in foster care (in 2018–19, around 0.7% of the student population). The reasons for entry into foster care are multiple, complex, and often intertwined with the social and environmental challenges associated with poverty.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the social and environmental challenges facing students. Because many schools, child welfare agencies, courts, and other businesses and agencies closed for much of the 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years, students in foster care experienced reduced access to in-person education and supports. As the state and schools work to recover from the pandemic, sustained attention will be necessary to ensure these students have access to the services they need to succeed.

 
As the state and schools work to recover from the pandemic, sustained attention will be necessary to ensure these students have access to the services they need to succeed.
 

A study of education data for 2018–19 examined the school conditions and education outcomes for students in foster care in California; the organizational, logistical, and data challenges to providing coordinated support; and promising practices for future supports.

School Conditions and Education Outcomes

Examination of 2018–19 data reveals the following findings on school conditions and education outcomes for students in foster care:

  • Students in foster care were more likely to move schools within the school year than other students (34% vs. 5%), and many moved multiple times.
  • Nearly half of all students in foster care were enrolled in the highest-poverty schools, those in which more than 80% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Furthermore, students in foster care were more likely than their peers to be enrolled in the lowest-performing schools, those targeted for Comprehensive Support and Improvement pursuant to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
  • Nearly 28% of students in foster care were chronically absent (missing 10% of school days or more), as compared to an average of 12% for students not in foster care.
  • Students in foster care were more than 4 times as likely to be suspended than their non-foster counterparts (15% vs. 3.4%). Suspension rates were especially high among African American students in foster care (22%).
  • Just 24% of students in foster care met or exceeded standards in English language arts on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) in 2018–19, compared to 51% for other students. For mathematics, the percentage of students in foster care meeting or exceeding standards was even lower—15% (compared to 40% for other students). Students in foster care who were highly mobile, in multiple high-need groups (e.g., English learners in foster care), or attending high-poverty schools had even lower achievement rates.
  • Students in foster care graduated at lower rates (56%) than youth not in foster care (85%). Among graduates and other high school completers, students in foster care were less likely than their peers to attend college (48% vs. 64%).

Educational Challenges Faced by Students Living in Foster Care

Addressing the education needs of students in foster care requires agencies and organizations to effectively coordinate and collaborate multiple levels. Among the organizational, logistical, and data challenges to this coordination and support are the following:

  • Data systems are often insufficient to support individual student case management and collaboration between schools and districts and child welfare agencies. Current systems are also inadequate for evaluating program impact by analyzing trends in aggregated data.
  • The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) raises the visibility of students in foster care but does not necessarily provide additional resources to meet their needs. Further, because students in foster care are small in number and their needs may span multiple systems, districts may struggle to address their individualized needs.
  • Transportation is a barrier to school stability for students in foster care. Students in foster care have a right to stay in their schools of origin, and the data show that they have better school outcomes when they are able to do so. However, when students are placed in resource homes (i.e., out-of-home foster care placements) outside the attendance area of their schools of origin, the time and costs of transportation can make continued attendance at those schools challenging.
  • Capacity constraints in the child welfare system, such as high caseloads among social workers and lack of placement options, especially for students with the greatest needs, can make it challenging to prioritize education in placement decisions, limit available time for best interest determinations, and contribute to students changing schools.

Promising Practices

Despite these challenges, coordinators identified the following research-aligned programs and processes (i.e., promising practices) that can inform future supports:

  • Developing one-stop resource centers that provide a ready web of supports and co-locating education and child welfare staff (i.e., sharing office space)
  • Implementing school-level practices for trusting relationships with students in foster care and prioritizing strong school-student connections through school-based liaisons trained to support students in foster care
  • Providing students in foster care with targeted social, emotional, and academic services as part of a tiered system of support

Policy Recommendations

These findings point to the need for systems and practices that provide students with access to a ready web of supports, so that students in foster care can receive help as soon as they need it. We suggest the following policy recommendations to better serve the educational needs of students in foster care:

  • Implement organizational structures that support cross-system collaboration: Collaborative interagency structures grounded in shared objectives and responsibility for students and families are needed to ensure that students in foster care receive supports quickly and efficiently.
  • Explore revising the LCFF to provide additional funding for students in multiple high-need groups: The state could explore revising the LCFF to provide additional funding in a way that better accounts for students in multiple high-need groups—students from low-income families, students in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, and English learners—by examining evidence-based weighting for different needs. Such a reform could more equitably fund districts to support the range of needs students face, benefiting all students needing access to a web of supports.
  • Identify and implement strategies to improve student case management: Strategies for improvement include establishing a state grant program to support the development and statewide dissemination of best practices for data-informed collaborative case management and co-locating education and child welfare staff.
  • Implement school designs and practices that allow for prompt identification and stronger support of student needs: To support ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, district and school leaders can use resources, such as the $13.5 billion for California districts in the American Rescue Plan Act, to implement school and district practices that allow for prompt identification and support of student needs. Creating relationship-centered, trauma-informed schools grounded in the science of learning and development will be important for improving outcomes for students in foster care.

California’s Students in Foster Care: Challenges and Promising Practices by Dion Burns, Danny Espinoza, Julie Adams, and Naomi Ondrasek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Stuart Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.