Want to Help California Foster Youth Succeed in School? Start with SB 233

When Ms. Z handed out the results of our eighth-grade algebra exam, I was so proud of myself. I had the highest score in the school. As was routine, everyone was supposed to bring the test home to show to their parents and have it signed.

But I wasn’t living with my parents. I was in foster care.

Lily Eagle Dorman Colby is an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law.

When I showed the test to my foster mother after school, her reaction was anything but routine. She wouldn’t sign my test. She didn’t even look at it.

It probably wasn’t her intention, but I got the message loud and clear: No one was proud of me.

According to an influential report by WestEd and the Stuart Foundation, California foster youth face an “invisible achievement gap,” scoring lower on statewide standardized tests and graduating at rates lower than their peers. Students in foster care are also more likely to be suspended or expelled.

One of the most basic things that children and youth need in order to fare well in school is an involved caregiver. Whether parental figures are related to the child or not, an adult’s involvement in a child’s schooling plays an important role in their academic achievement.

You may be surprised to learn that many foster parents are afraid to engage in their foster child’s education. A caregiver may not officially hold a child’s educational rights so social workers and school districts often aren’t sure what information can and cannot be shared with them. Foster parents can lose their license — and the foster children in their care could be taken from them — if they do anything they aren’t supposed to do, so many foster parents err on the side of caution.

But foster parents shouldn’t be afraid of accessing educational information about the children in their care. Senate Bill (SB) 233, a bill now before the California Senate, helps clarify how foster parents who don’t necessarily hold educational rights can and should access their foster child’s educational records. Put forward by California State Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), SB 233 also requires foster parent training to include information about foster youth educational rights and the importance of the caregiver’s role in education.

If we care about changing the educational trajectories of youth in the foster care system, passing SB 233 would be a crucial step in the right direction.

I became the foster parent of my youngest brother, who has autism, when social services couldn’t find a home for him. I became a foster parent again when my husband and I took in a teenager. Both times there was confusion about what I could and couldn’t do or know.

School districts either assumed I was an educational rights holder, and allowed me to do more than was appropriate, or assumed caregivers were barred from accessing educational records and shared too little or nothing.

I didn’t have the training I needed either to understand what I could access or how I could be most effective. SB 233 fixes the confusion. Foster parents can and should be accessing educational records, and this law helps let social workers, local education agencies and most importantly, foster parents themselves, know that they have the right to access educational records to help their foster youth succeed in school.

Now, more than a decade after exiting foster care in Alameda County, I’ve graduated from college and law school, and I train other foster parents about the importance of being educationally involved and about the educational rights of the children in their care.

The foster parents I work with have said time and time again: They need more information to help their foster children and youth. It’s about time they get what they need.

Lily Eagle Dorman Colby is an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. She is an alumna of the foster care system and a former foster parent. She graduated from Yale College in 2010 with a degree in economics and received her J.D. from Berkeley Law School in 2015. She works on issues affecting foster youth as an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw and Pittman.

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