Foster youth in California schools have a rate of chronic absenteeism far higher than the general student population, according to data available for the first time from the state’s Department of Education (DOE).
Statewide, the rate of chronic absenteeism — or when a student is absent from school for any reason for more than 10 percent of the days they were enrolled in a school — is just under 11 percent. When it comes to foster children in California schools, 25 percent are considered chronically absent.
In looking at the 2016–17 school year, the Dec. 5 DOE data release provides specific information around four subgroups: foster youth, English language learners, homeless students and students from low-income families.
Advocates in California were not shocked to learn that foster youth fared the worst of all those groups, and pointed to a laundry list of challenges they face, stemming both from personal struggles and a school system under equipped to accommodate their special needs.
“From our perspective, offering direct services to foster youth, we were unfortunately not surprised, but it’s still always sad and shocking to see in black and white what you experience with clients on a daily basis,” said Alaina Moonves, a senior staff attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights. Challenges around transportation and records transfer, inconsistent access to school uniforms and supplies, and trauma-related mental and emotional health issues are some of the reasons foster youth may be absent more often than their peers, she said.
Chronic absenteeism, which differs from truancy in that it encompasses both excused and unexcused absences, is an early warning indicator of future academic challenges and a reduced likelihood of graduating high school, according to the California DOE. Research has shown that just over half of California foster youth graduate high school.
The data release comes at a time when the state is working to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), federal legislation passed in 2015 that is designed to address some of the chronic absenteeism issues faced by foster youth.
Under ESSA, which sets federal attendance standards for all students, chronic absenteeism is being tracked and used as a metric of school accountability for the first time, measuring whether schools are meeting state and federal goals.
Moonves posits that the new data is likely underestimating how many foster kids are actually missing a significant number of school days. Since this metric only looks at the days missed during times a student is enrolled in school, it is not counting students that may go weeks between leaving one school and enrolling in another while they navigate a new foster placement or go through a complicated reunification process.
Moonves shared the story of one teen to illustrate the amalgam of challenges foster youth face when navigating the education system.
This particular student had been the victim of sex trafficking at the hands of an employee of a school she had previously attended. As a result, she was extremely anxious about being in new places — especially new schools. But, like many foster youth, this student had to change schools a number of times as she moved from one foster placement to the next. So, on top of her trauma-related challenges, no one was keeping close track of her grades and records.
“Each time she moved, she was really starting from scratch,” Moonves said, adding that this left the student bored by duplicative classes and frustrated by her start-and-stop progress.
Research shows that each school change can result in a student falling behind in their education trajectory by up to six months.
“This is sadly somewhat typical of what we see,” Moonves said. “It’s important to talk about the extra challenges [foster youth] face and special needs we need to address.”
Despite the alarming statistics released by the state, Moonves and other advocates say the data is an important first step in understanding and combating the problem at a systemic level.
“While it’s not at all what we want for our most vulnerable kids, it’s an important galvanizing moment for advocates, stakeholders, youth and schools to come together and address the various things that impact achievement,” said Angela Vazquez with the National Center for Youth Law.
California already has some laws in place meant to mitigate the issues that lead to chronic absenteeism among foster youth. For example, California’s AB 490 says schools must enroll foster youth immediately, regardless of whether or not they have the normally required documentation and dictates that their old school must transfer records to the new school within two days.
However, advocates hope that ESSA, backed by the new data, will go further in addressing this issue.
Notably, ESSA includes a specific transportation policy that requires local education agencies to work with child welfare agencies to create an official plan for keeping foster youth in their school of origin, or the school that best meets their needs, throughout the foster care placement changes they might experience.
Within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), California’s largest school district, rates of chronic absenteeism among foster youth versus the general population are about on par with the statewide averages, at 25.6 percent and 11.5 percent respectively. Michelle Castelo Alferes, director of pupil services with LAUSD, said they are currently running an attendance campaign with the goal of reducing chronic absenteeism to 9 percent for all students districtwide.
In accordance with ESSA’s transportation requirement, LAUSD works with its internal transportation department to make sure that they provide accessible bus routes to students even after they move out of the identified attendance range.
The district also runs a Foster Care Achievement Program and employs 84 foster youth achievement counselors who are assigned to provide personalized case management for each of the students identified as foster youth, which at last count was approximately 7,200. This program is meant to bolster an emotional and academic support system that can be lacking with students living in foster care or group homes.
“For such a vulnerable population, the district is really committed to providing that caring adult on campus,” Castelo Alferes said.