Since the 2015 passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), school districts and child welfare agencies around the country have been tasked with developing transportation plans to keep foster youth in their schools of origin if that is what they prefer.
In Los Angeles County, home to the largest local child welfare system in the country with around 30,000 foster youth, the evaluation of a recently concluded pilot program found that the county relied heavily on rides hailed with a private vendor car service called HopSkipDrive.
The L.A. pilot tested three methods of transporting youth to their school of origin after a placement change: regular and modified school bus routes, private vendor ride hailing, and reimbursing caregivers who drive youth to school for transportation costs.
Of the 1,131 youth served during the two-year pilot project, 89 percent used HopSkipDrive rides to get to and from school, accounting for approximately 87 percent of the $4.6 million pilot expenditure.
L.A. County’s plan, which was approved in late 2017, established a way for the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to coordinate the logistics of transporting foster youth to their school of origin with school districts in the county, according to ESSA guidelines. The pilot was a collaborative effort between DCFS, the County Office of Education, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the Office of Child Protection.
L.A.’s pilot could prove instructive for child welfare agencies across California, according to Danielle Wondra, a senior associate with the advocacy group Children Now.
“A lot of other counties have been struggling to figure out how to make this transportation piece work,” Wondra said. “So I think it’s a good model just to see how, especially in such a large place, they can get all of these partners to work together.”
A long-term plan to succeed the pilot is set to begin as soon as the upcoming 2019-20 school year in some county districts, and largely mirrors the pilot with HopSkipDrive in place to serve as stopgap transportation until the district and DCFS can decide on the most cost-effective method in each individual case.
The county Education Coordinating Council, a public-private partnership created in 2004 to raise the educational achievement of systems involved youth in L.A., is in the process of entering into agreements laying out the long-term transportation plan with each of the 80 districts in the county, starting with the eight districts that serve around 70 percent of L.A.’s foster youth. So far, four of those eight counties have signed on.
During the pilot, school districts only had to pay for the costs associated with their school buses and did not have to contribute to the more expensive use of the ride share service. In the long-term plan moving forward, schools will be asked to contribute 50 percent of private ride costs. DCFS will continue to support transportation needs for youth as the remaining districts work out their long-term plans.
ESSA requires that school districts and child welfare agencies coordinate a transportation plan that allows foster youth to stay in their school of origin when a placement change moves them out of their school’s catchment area. Prior to this pilot, California and L.A. County — home to the largest county-run child welfare system and one of the largest school districts in the country — had struggled to implement this part of the law, which was supposed to be done by December 10, 2016.
School disruptions contribute to bleak educational outcomes for foster youth, who lose an estimated four months of academic progress with every school change. In addition to the logistical challenges associated with transitioning into a new school — getting enrolled in the right classes and learning a new system — the social-emotional adjustment required and acclimating to a whole new family takes a toll, said Alaina Moonves, a senior staff attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights, an advocacy group that worked on the county’s ESSA plan.
A 2014 study of California foster youth found that 17 percent of youth attend three or more schools during their first year in foster care.
“You could potentially throw a kid that’s working really hard way off track,” Moonves said.
Some youth also used public transportation to get to their school of origin with fare provided by DCFS, but the data around this transportation was hard to track for the pilot because youth used the fare cards for more than just transportation to school, according to the department.
Caregiver reimbursements for educational transport accounted for 5 percent of the youth served in the pilot and cost just over $35,000 during the two years. More than half of these trips had caregivers driving more than 14 miles, with most trips in the 14-18 mile range.
Advocates suggested that this option might be underutilized because of lack of knowledge about their rights to reimbursement and delays in getting those funds to caregivers due to lengthy approval processes. A bill currently working through the state legislature would require caregivers receive written notice about this right and ensure transportation funding at the time of placement rather than making caregivers wait months to be paid back.
School bus routes were used even less, with 50 students relying on this method for the first year of the pilot and just 25 using it during year two. On average, foster students who participated in the pilot project traveled more than 24 miles to their school of origin, at an average cost of between $8,000 and $9,000 per year.
Though school bus routes served a small portion of the pilot cohort, Wondra pointed out that increasing the use of this option could have a beneficial effect in terms of promoting a sense of normalcy for foster youth by allowing them to get to school in the same fashion as many of their peers.
HopSkipDrive served 1,004 youth for a total of more than 75,000 rides during the two-year pilot at a cost of nearly $4 million for the duration of the pilot. The average cost for a one-way trip using this service was $44.
Approximately 10 percent of the costs came from cancellation fees that are incurred when a scheduled ride is cancelled within seven hours of pick up time. Youth placed in group homes and residential treatment facilities accounted for 40 percent of cancellation fees, but only 15 percent of total rides ordered. Many of the cancellations occurred an hour or less before pick up time.
Wondra said it makes sense that more cancellations came from these types of placements.
“A lot of those kids have much higher needs than kids who are placed in home placements,” Wondra said. “They may be dealing with a lot of mental health needs, a lot of trauma. It could be a situation where they just can’t make it to school that day or they’re not feeling well.”
The report highlighted the reliability and convenience of HopSkipDrive, and young people praised its ease of use as well.
“They made sure I was on time to class every day my junior year, even my 7 a.m. classes,” one unnamed foster youth said in feedback DCFS shared with The Chronicle.
The heavy reliance on the private vendor option was attributed in part to the convenience of door-to-door service, but also because of struggles in developing long-term transportation plans for youth after they change placements. These plans require a Best-Interest Determination (BID) meeting between the youth, their educational rights holder (most often a birth parent or foster parent) and the LAUSD’s foster youth liaison to determine if remaining in the school of origin is the best course of action and, if so, figure out the most cost-effective way to get them there.
According to the report, the barriers to scheduling these BID meetings were challenges engaging educational rights holders and inconsistent notifications to schools that placement changes had occurred.