San Diego County’s Answer to School Stability for Students in Foster Care

It seems obvious that keeping kids in their home school with their peer group – a concept known as “school stability”– is a key ingredient in the recipe for academic success for students in foster care.

Research shows that on average, children lose four to six months of learning each time they change schools. This is especially acute for high school students, who run into issues obtaining the credits they need to graduate or may have to re-take classes due to coursework alignment issues. For highly mobile students, this means they’re too often treading water or falling behind, making it that much more difficult to end the cycle of disruption that places unnecessary hurdles in their path to a successful adulthood.

If the problem is obvious – being “in the system” can make it hard for children to get to school, stay in school, and thrive – the answer is also straightforward: make it easy for them to do so.

In California, legislators and advocates have been working for years to remove barriers to school stability. Here, children are entitled to remain in their “school of origin,” and those entitlements have been enhanced. School of origin refers to the school where a child was when he or she was when placed into foster care. Legislation from 2010 expanded that definition to allow students in foster care to matriculate with their “school of origin” classmates, through the grades and across district boundaries, when it’s determined that it’s in the child’s best interest.

That’s great, in theory. Schools — and county child welfare organizations and the juvenile justice system, in some cases — have to get the students to their chosen schools. Some districts offer school busing; others don’t. Public transportation in California is spotty, and even where it exists, it may not be appropriate to put all children on a public bus.

The issue has taken on increasing urgency as school stability is an important aspect of California’s Local Control Funding Formula and the accountability measures contained in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the national education law. Each state must create a plan for compliance with ESSA to ensure equal opportunity for all students, including those in foster care.

In California, it remains to be seen if county offices of education will be included in the state’s plan for compliance with ESSA. It would be reasonable to assume so, as this model has proven effective in assisting youth experiencing homelessness.

San Diego County’s efforts represent a possible model for other counties across the state. Here, many districts began tackling this issue in a serious, systemic way about three years ago. This has required creative and collaborative thinking, a strategic approach and inter-agency partnerships.

Thanks to funding from the Administration of Children and Families Child Welfare-Education System Collaborations to Increase Educational Stability (ACF) grant, the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) conducted a comprehensive needs and resource assessment to guide our work. SDCOE began to provide transportation services to students in foster care when no other method was available, using blended funding from the ACF grant, our Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program grant, and funding from the San Diego County Health and Human Services Child Welfare Services Agency (CWS).

Recently, several San Diego County school districts have begun including transportation as a school stability service in their Local Control and Accountability Plans. Other districts consistently transport students across districts and have cost-sharing arrangements. Many districts are a part of a countywide transportation agreement that enables them to share or leverage their neighbor district’s resources for an agreed-upon cost.

Currently, SDCOE’s Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program provides, with exclusive funding from CWS, short-term, stopgap transportation while a student’s best interest is being determined and a plan is being put into place. This ensures that the child’s school attendance is fluid and consistent.

As in other places, San Diego’s efforts are a work in progress, but we are very proud of the commitment and effort being demonstrated here.

In fact, in fiscal year 2015-16, 68 percent of students who changed home placements remained in their school of origin, when it was determined to be in their best interest. We see this as just one example of how we are moving forward with the student at the center of all decisions.

Michelle Lustig
, Ed.D, MSW, PPS is the director of Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program and Homeless Education with the San Diego County Office of Education as well as the President and CEO of Foster Horizons, Inc. a consulting firm focused on improving the educational outcomes of students in foster care through cross-system collaboration and trauma informed practices within school systems.

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