California School Districts Need to Take on School Climate Challenge for Foster Youth

By Laura Faer

Foster youth in California schools have a radically different educational experience than other students.

Foster youth cope with the after-shocks of trauma as a result of abuse and neglect and out of home placement. Compounding that trauma, foster youth are often forced to change schools multiple times, even within the same year, as they move from foster home to foster home. In school, foster youth are disproportionately subjected to suspensions, expulsions and contacts with the juvenile justice system. In addition, foster youth often lack a parent advocate and face barriers to enrollment, attendance, school and after-school transportation, and transfer of credits, all of which stand in the way of their educational success.

To address these needs and challenges, school districts need to develop a unique and coordinated approach. For the first time last year, a new state law – the Local Control Funding Formula — required school districts to create baseline data, goals and specific actions to support foster youth and other high needs students. Yet Public Counsel’s new study, Fostering Educational Success, finds that in the first year of implementation few school districts developed goals or strategies specifically to help abused and neglected children improve attendance and avoid suspension, expulsion, and encounters with law enforcement on campus.

Looking at the school climate and attendance area for the 64 school districts with more than 150 foster youth — representing approximately 55% of the foster youth enrolled in California schools – we found a lack of focus on foster youth:

  • Few school districts identified unique attendance-related goals or actions for foster youth. Only two districts, Sacramento City Unified and Los Angeles Unified, identified baseline attendance rates for foster youth.
  • Few school districts developed unique suspension-reduction goals or actions for foster youth. Only one district, Los Angeles Unified, provided baseline suspension data for foster youth.
  • Only one district identified a goal specifically addressing foster youth expulsion rates.
  • A number of districts spent the same or more on school-site law enforcement officers and equipment as on research-based, whole-school strategies for creating a positive and supportive school climate.

The good news is that many districts have made promising steps overall to improve school climate and reduce school removals. The challenge for next year is to deliver on that promise for foster youth. Fostering Educational Success calls on school districts with a foster youth population of 15 or more to make developing a positive and trauma-informed school environment a top priority by:

  • Establishing school climate and attendance area baseline needs, goals and actions that account for the unique needs of foster youth.
  • Increasing investments in research-based, best practices in discipline, such as social emotional learning,trauma-informed strategies, restorative justice, and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, and prioritizing early implementation at schools where foster youth are concentrated.
  • Investing in well-trained staff who can be a single, continuous point of contact for foster youth and who can navigate across and coordinate with multiple systems.
  • Analyzing the impact of and reassess increased investments in school-site law enforcement and refocus funding on research-based strategies that support the social and emotional well-being of foster youth and remove barriers to school stability and prompt enrollment.

In Year 2 of LCFF, school districts should focus on foster youth by putting a stop to school removals and referrals to law enforcement and instead develop a school environment that supports their social, emotional and mental health.

Laura Faer is Statewide Education Rights Director at Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. Visit www.fixschooldiscipline.org to read the report, Fostering Educational Success.

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