STAFF BLOG: Together to Stabilize Education for Children in Foster Care — Tom Capretta, Family and Children Community Coordinator
By: Staff Blogger
In my work, I often present to educators, and I try to find ways to immediately engage them. One of my favorite activities to kick off a workshop is to ask participants to draw maps of places from their childhoods. I adapted this activity from Dr. Barbara Boone at The Ohio State University. Participants have five minutes to draw a map of any size, but it must include some places where they spent a lot of their time. Then, mapmakers discuss similarities and differences between their maps and the emotions tied to the places. Often, most maps in the room are similar. However, occasionally we get to discuss two very different maps. Many with geographically larger maps discuss how challenging it was to change schools and move between communities. At the end of the activity, we discuss what the maps of the students we serve might look like.
One-third of young adults in foster care reported five or more school changes. This is important because just one move can increase a student’s risk of not graduating or delaying graduation. Now, imagine what the maps of students in foster care might look like. Many of their maps would paint pictures of frequent moves that disrupt established relationships with trusted adults and their peers. In the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), lawmakers attempted to address the challenging and frequent transitions that students in foster care experience.
ESSA seeks to stabilize the education of children in foster care in four key ways. First, ESSA requires county child welfare agencies to work with school districts to identify the best educational setting for each student transitioning in foster care. The procedure for determining the best interest of the student should focus on maintaining as much of the student’s education stability as possible — including staying in his or her school of origin. Second, if a student can continue in the school of origin, ESSA requires the school district to arrange transportation services for the student in foster care. Transportation is key to ensuring stability. Third, if a student is unable to stay in the school of origin, ESSA requires that the new school begin the enrollment process immediately while working to remove barriers to enrollment and evaluating the student’s academic needs. Finally, when a student in foster care must change schools, districts must work diligently to facilitate the transfer of records as quickly as possible.
This shift in how we serve students in foster care will pose some challenges for districts and county agencies. For too long, school districts and child welfare agencies worked separately to support the same students. Today, ESSA challenges two distinct, large systems to work collaboratively and focus on what is best for students in their care. ESSA also challenges districts and child welfare agencies to share in the cost of transporting students in foster care. Even with these challenges, there are opportunities. Agencies and schools are building new channels of communication and systems to better meet the needs of the students they serve.
There are three critical actions that districts and county agencies are taking to effectively implement these requirements and build positive momentum around this work.
- Prepare: Districts and child welfare agencies must ensure that staff from the very top of an organization all the way down to support staff are informed of requirements. All staff must be ready to engage in procedures to support students in foster care. By being prepared, everyone can work to immediately enroll students and make sure they have the resources to learn and feel comfortable in their school settings.
- Coordinate: Districts and child welfare agencies should work together to write best interest determination and transportation procedures. With clear procedures in place, both parties can fulfill their respective responsibilities to support the educational stability of students in foster care. Many districts and child welfare agencies are forming regional or countywide networks that write these procedures.
- Collaborate: Districts and child welfare agencies are thinking outside the box and respecting the expertise of each party at the table. Together, they are creating solutions to complex problems. Both districts and county agencies have unique insights to the needs of each student. Those insights should be simultaneously respected. Working together to find student-centered solutions is what collaboration is all about.
All in all, ESSA’s new requirements for students in foster care is positive. These requirements ensure that school districts and county child welfare agencies are working together to keep relationships with trusted adults and peers intact. At the same time, they are making student-centered decisions for what a student’s best educational setting may be. While there are challenges, there are unprecedented opportunities to improve academic outcomes for students in foster care.
Tom Capretta is the family and children community coordinator at the Ohio Department of Education. He supports districts in their efforts to implement effective family and community engagement strategies and serve vulnerable student groups, including students in foster care. To contact Tom, click here.