Cracking the Code: How One California County Pushed Past FERPA Restrictions

By: Orville Thomas

“It makes all the difference if they want to share. It’s easier if they’re not inclined to share. They say FERPA and it ends the conversation.”- Dr. Bernard James of Pepperdine University describing school districts and their interaction with FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Passed by Congress in 1974, FERPA went about attempting to protect the educational records of students, depending almost exclusively on parental consent for those records to be released. Almost as long as FERPA has been in effect, child welfare agencies have been advocating for amendments to the law allowing for foster parents or court appointed guardians to also have power of consent. California’s legislature took up this task in 2003 when they passed AB-490, expressly recognizing the role that child welfare agencies have in serving as “parents” for foster youth.

Even with AB-490  in effect, California schools have had a hard time coming up with a blanket policy for educational privacy when it comes to foster youth. Some counties allowed for educational records to be shared, citing California’s progressive law. Other counties continued to block access to child welfare agencies pointing to FERPA, a national law that did not give them explicit permission to allow for information sharing.

The gray area in educational information sharing is what today’s Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth announcement is trying to get rid of. Under their proposed legislation, the Access to Papers Leads to Uninterrupted Scholars Act (A+ Act), child welfare service agencies will be added to the list of exceptions already included in FERPA. This legislation, if passed, would ease the flow of educational information from schools to agencies, helping ensure educational stability and success for foster youth according to members of the caucus.

With possible legislation making it’s way through Congress allowing for the sharing of educational information, The Chronicle of Social Change contacted the county Dr. Bernard James cited as having “cracked the code” on FERPA regulations and information sharing.

While other school districts have used FERPA as a wall to hide behind, San Diego County has stepped out of its legislative shadows and is sharing educational records in a lawful and productive process. Their turn towards open educational information sharing started over a decade ago when county officials realized they needed a better system to help foster youth maintain their education even after being separated from their families.

San Diego County’s status as a leader in educational information sharing has come after a decade’s worth of work. “You can’t force this…” said Jenifer Mendel, a Child Welfare and Attendance Coordinator in San Diego County. She continued, saying, “to really work as close as San Diego County is, the stars had to align in the right way and the right people had to come forward saying ‘we can do this’ and really have a bigger vision than just saying that these kids are collateral damage.” Mendel and other county officials said that their system relies on complete cooperation between all parties involved in the education of foster youth. Mendel gives an example the relationship attorney’s for foster youth have with others in the system to show how San Diego County’s cooperation differs compared to others in California, “our child attorneys in this county are just open and wanting to work with us and wanting to work on a level playing field to do what’s best for the kids.”

While having all agencies on board would be the starting point for those counties trying to copy what San Diego has done, San Diego’s success is a result of much more than people wanting to work together. Here are some points The Chronicle of Social Change found about San Diego County when it come to educational information sharing.

Data Sharing:

San Diego, along with a handful of other counties, is using an online database allowing educational information to get into the hands of stakeholders involved with foster youth. It’s system, FY-SIS, short for Foster Youth Student Information System shares educational information with several agencies and organizations including child welfare services, schools and school districts, and probation offices or juvenile court.  FY-SIS allows those with approval and Internet access to look at records for the 5,000 or so youth who are placed under the supervision of the county.

Where San Diego County separates itself is in the level of buy-in that they see among those involved in the database according to those involved. With 31-years of working in the system, Mendel says she’s heard of differences in cooperation throughout California, “it’s probably the only county where there is an inter-agency agreement in place where they have all forty-two school districts, probation, law enforcement, etc. all working together and agreeing that it’s in the best interest of the children.” The comprehensive agreement among agencies has made it possible for the system to share information ranging from immunization records, unofficial transcripts, school history, assessment scores to medical information. According to school officials, it’s been essential for those involved in keeping the needs of foster youth met.

Mendel says the database gives districts an extra tool for helping foster youth, saying, “these kids are having a hard time as it is, when we can break down the barriers and silos that allow these children to be freely through the system then it takes some of the burden off of their shoulders, the stress off of their shoulders.”

East County, where they take things one-step further:

Mendel says while San Diego excels as a whole, East San Diego County is where the information-sharing model is really pushing it’s way forward. She touted the GOALS system East County is using as a model of innovation. Standing for Global Oversight for Analysis and Linking System, GOALS uses all agencies in a research role for future policy implementation. According to Mendel, it’s, “seeing if we can step in and see what’s going on with these kids and where we let the ball fall earlier in their lives.”

Every month GOALS grabs records from a particular sub-group of students (i.e. homeless, gangs, lower income, etc.) and analyzes their current situation by moving back through their documented histories and seeing what has happened in their lives and where things changed. “Are we seeing patterns? What happened earlier in their lives? Are parents incarcerated? Drug abuse? When did these kids start coming on the radar that we missed?” is how she described the process with which they study students.

Mendel says the GOALS program wouldn’t work without the help of all the other agencies in the county, “CPS brings in their piece and we see how many times they have been contacted. Probation says how many times they’ve been called for the father.” Taking that information, GOALS then allows for educators and agencies to make recommendations on possible policy implementation while also looking at when are where the implementation would be most effective for youth.

Those involved with the GOALS program say effective policy implementation and collective cooperation throughout the region can be seen directly in their graduation rates compared to the rest of the nation. GOALS says their high school graduation rate for foster youth is at 83% compared to low 50’s for the rest of the nation. “It’s amazing that these kids are so resilient, that these kids make it through and graduate high school is incredible” says Mendel, pointing out that with the right programs and people in place, San Diego should continue to be a leader in their sharing educational information effort.

Now California counties will eagerly anticipate the fate of the A+ Act as it goes through congress. If it passes then schools can clear out all the previous hurdles that have stopped the sharing of information between agencies and educators. While the A+ Act will give schools the green light to go ahead and share, San Diego will give them the blueprint for a better system in which foster youth graduate more, drop out less, and are served to the best of a county’s ability.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at