Advocates Say California School Districts Should Spend More on Foster Youth

As California school districts spend June finalizing their budgets for the upcoming school year, they need to specify their plans to serve students in foster care, say child advocates.

Such plans could range from hiring more support personnel for foster youth to lowering the number of times foster youth transfer schools.

“The issue we have to work on is school stability, how not to have these children transferred,” said Karla Pleitéz Howell, associate director of educational equity for the Advancement Project. The national nonprofit, which focuses on social justice issues, has offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Karla Pleitéz Howell, associate director of educational equity at the Advancement Project.
Karla Pleitéz Howell, associate director of educational equity at the Advancement Project.

Howell pointed to The Invisible Achievement Gap, a two-part study sponsored by the Stuart Foundation that found that foster youth are 32 percent more likely to transfer than other low-income students or those in the general population.

Nearly two years have passed since California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which provides additional resources to school districts to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of students, such as low-income students, foster youth and English-language learners.

Despite the new law, a report released in February by Public Counsel, a non-profit advocacy law firm, found that few districts accounted for the needs of foster youth in their budget plans, despite the persistent challenges faced by this population.

The Public Counsel report also described foster youth in California as coping with disproportionately high exposure to trauma, leading to later experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a rate twice that of U.S. combat veterans. Youth who are dealing with trauma are at a substantial risk of struggling with behavioral and learning problems and are more likely to be suspended or expelled.

The LCFF requires school districts to develop a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) to outline how they will use the extra state funding to deal with these critical issues.

Jackie Thu-Huong Wong, director of FosterEd California, which works to improve educational outcomes for foster youth, said that she’s heard school district officials reason that by serving all students they can meet the needs of foster students. But vague platitudes do little to help foster students close achievement gaps with their peers, according to Wong.

Jackie Thu-Huong Wong
Jackie Thu-Huong Wong, director of FosterEd California.

She and Howell both applauded Los Angeles Unified School District for reserving $9.9 million for foster youth services in its proposed 2014-15 LCAP. This included hiring 55 counselors for foster youth, developing learning plans to boost the foster youth graduation rate and setting attendance goals for these students.

“LAUSD made a huge investment,” Wong said.

A report released on Monday from UC Berkeley and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles found that LAUSD has made great progress in assisting foster students under the state’s new school funding system, though significant needs remain for this group. The school district has updated its LCAP for the 2015-16 school year to set aside $11.2 million to augment the staff, including counselors, psychiatric social workers and behavior specialists, needed to serve foster youth. The money will also be used to gather data to lower the foster youth transfer rate, among other services.

“No one else is investing this much money to make sure they’re helping to coordinate the different services foster youth will need,” Howell said.

Smaller California school districts, such as Compton and Downey, have also outlined specific goals and plans for foster youth. In its proposed 2015-16 LCAP, Compton Unified sets aside $348,000 for educational counseling for foster youth and $388,000 to hire and train foster youth liaison staff. Downey Unified’s LCAP earmarks more than $400,000 in the next school year to hire case workers for foster youth as well as $875,000 for social workers for foster youth and low-income students alike.

Janelle Kubinec, senior program director at WestEd, a nonprofit research agency based in San Francisco, said that districts that pay attention to the “unique factors” related to the educational needs of foster youth are better prepared to serve such students well. According to Kubinec, districts that designate staff to track foster youth can make a difference.

“More case management for foster youth is how to keep them in schools,” she said.

California school districts will finalize their 2015-16 LCAPs by the month’s end.

Wong said that it’s not just important for districts to reserve money for foster youth services but also to engage the foster community in the LCAP process. The state requires districts to include the public in the planning process.

“Involve the community, the caregivers, talk to parents or group home providers,” she suggested. “Even the most well-intentioned folks struggle with including these voices specifically in the conversation.”

Wong added that it would benefit the public if districts presented their LCAPs in a more digestible format. She said that even highly educated people struggle to process all of the jargon and figures included in the plans. If the community can understand the information in the LCAPs, they can hold districts accountable.

They can ask, “Are you doing what you would do for your own kids in the LCAP?” Wong said. “That is the question.”

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.

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