Foster youth have numerous adults in their lives responsible for acting in their best interests — from teachers and caregivers to social workers and mental health providers. But keeping all of these adults on the same page to ensure that foster youth meet their educational goals can be challenging, according to Michelle Traiman, director of FosterEd.
An initiative of the National Center for Youth Law, FosterEd works to help youth in the child welfare system excel in school. It estimates that foster youth are about twice as likely to be held back in school or drop out.
Yet, Traiman said, “When we ask professionals working with youth how’s it going [in class], very often there’s no set of processes to actually hold ourselves accountable.”
Given this, FosterEd has designed a new Web-based educational case management system that will help adults in a foster youth’s life track the student’s academic progress. The new online tool, which has not been formally named, will be piloted in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties in California as well as in New Mexico and Arizona, where FosterEd, based in Oakland, Calif., recently expanded statewide.
The goal is to help a foster youth’s education team, a group of engaged adults in the child’s life — such as teachers, caseworkers and caregivers — develop and maintain an individualized education case plan based on the child’s needs. In addition to an education team, the FosterEd framework includes education champions for foster youth who support their long-term educational goals. The new online program will not only make it easier for these adults to support the academic needs of youth but also to communicate with each other about a child’s strengths and weaknesses in school. Using the system, created with Drupal software, the education team can add, amend or remove goals.
Students will also have a say in how their education plans are designed.
“We need to make sure that the document is in alignment with what the student wants,” Traiman said. “The student needs to be in the driver’s seat.”
She added, however, that only select individuals will have access to the education plans. “It’s about the right people having the right information at the right time,” she said. “We don’t believe information about foster youth should be transparent blanket-ly.”
Rachel Velcoff Hults, FosterEd’s chief operating officer, said that to access the program everyone will need a password and username. Once members log in, they can access the education plan of the child they’re overseeing. They will be able to view the educational goals for that child and the steps taken to help the youth meet them.
“Our educational liaisons on the ground — it’s a tool they’ll use managing casework,” Velcoff Hults said. “When a liaison works on a case, they’ll bring team members together to talk about and identify educational goals using this new technological tool.”
Stephanie Boyd Serafin, director of the child welfare national platform for Fedcap, a social advocacy nonprofit, recognizes how technology can benefit foster youth. Fedcap created PrepNOW! — an interactive Web-based curriculum for foster parents to help youth apply to, attend and graduate from college.
“It is a challenge for foster parents to know what is going on in a foster youth’s life and how they are doing academically,” Serafin said.
Foster parents have responded positively to the PrepNOW! module because it helps them feel empowered to help youth in care complete their educational goals, she continued. Similar programs, such as FosterEd’s new tool, may also prove helpful to the adults in a foster youth’s life.
“Any creation of technical support that could be provided to an educational team to help in this effort would be of great assistance,” Serafin said.
Traiman noted that FosterEd doesn’t view technology as the remedy for helping foster youth succeed in school but as a medium that can help the organization realize its vision. She called technology an “imperfect tool,” as this marks the second time FosterEd has designed a Web-based program for foster youth. The new technology will replace the old program, which launched in 2013 and received mixed reviews, according to Traiman.
The old model may have its detractors, but Susan Vardon, who serves as an educational champion for a pair of middle school siblings in foster care, has largely found it helpful.
“As educational champion, I meet with the children individually and assist them with their schoolwork,” said Vardon, a Tucson, Ariz., resident. “… Since I have been with my two students for two years, I’ve seen communication improve. The children are now on their third caseworker assigned by the Arizona Department of Economic Security (the child welfare agency). Initially, there was very little communication. Now things are better.”
FosterEd’s technology has helped all of the stakeholders in the siblings’ lives stay in the loop on their academic achievements, Vardon said. What’s more, the boy she works with now completes more schoolwork and his behavior has improved, she said.
Vardon hopes that educators will use FosterEd’s new system — some teachers weren’t inclined to do so before — and that the technology will make it easier for a youth’s education team to select specific goals for students.
Traiman called the new program an improvement over the old model. She also described the new system as more intuitive.
“It’s been our value to create something that’s open source and easily usable by people who do this kind of work,” Traiman said.
Pete Hershberger, head of FosterEd Arizona, has high hopes for the new online tool. He believes it can play a role in evaluating how effective a foster youth’s education plan is.
“As FosterEd scales up to a statewide program in Arizona, funding will be both public and philanthropy,” he said. “Both state dollars and philanthropy dollars demand accountability. Technology is the backbone of this accountability.”
Earlier this month, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed HB 2665, legislation that expands FosterEd there statewide through the establishment of the Foster Youth Education Success Fund. The bill also authorizes a $1 million appropriation for the program in fiscal year 2018 and a dollar-for-dollar match of state funds with philanthropic funds up to $500,000.
Such investments serve the many foster youth who often end up robbed of an education because of their history of abuse and neglect and subsequent involvement in the child welfare system, Traiman said.
“We need deep engagement that put youth at the center, and we can’t be successful unless we have school districts, child welfare advocates and community-based agencies,” she said. “It cannot be done without multiple systems coming together without a shared vision of what these young people need.”
Too often, officials in these systems don’t really talk to one another, Traiman continued. Technology may close the communication gap.
“When we talk about technology, it really is putting the young person at the center of what we do,” she said, “to thoughtfully improve upon it and make sure it’s realizing the vision we all have.”
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.