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Educational Stability Elusive
for Youth in Foster Care

from the Spring 2010 Adoptalk

by Katherine Burdick, Esq.

Attorney Katherine Burdick is a Zubrow Fellow at the Juvenile Law Center, a partner—with the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, the Education Law Center-PA, Casey Family Programs, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation—in the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. Online at www.abanet.org/child/education, the Center is a technical assistance resource and information clearinghouse on laws and policies that affect the education of foster youth. Below, Katherine reviews laws that promote school stability for youth in care, and proposes changes to make laws and policies more effective.

Quality education is vital to every child’s well being, and is especially crucial for vulnerable youth. Through positive learning experiences, children in or adopted from foster care can find a sense of security and belonging that lights a path to adult success. Yet, students in foster care are more likely to drop out, repeat a grade, and struggle in school.1 Past abuse and neglect play a role in these outcomes, but so does excessive mobility in care.

The Problem

Children in care change living placements about once or twice a year. Too often, this also means changing schools. At each new school, the youth is the new kid again, may lack a stable support system, may have trouble getting school records and credits transferred, and may therefore need to repeat classes or even grades. With each move, students on average lose four to six months of academic growth.2 It is easy to see how foster youth can fall behind in school.

Students in care who rarely or never change schools are far more likely to graduate from high school.3 Children in care who experience school stability also have a better chance of more quickly achieving permanency with birth or adoptive families.4

Laws That Can Be Tools to Promote Greater School Stability

Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act

The Fostering Connections Act (P.L. 110-351) is a comprehensive law aimed at improving life for youth in care and promoting permanent family connections. Among other important provisions, the Act requires child welfare agencies to create “a plan for ensuring the educational stability of the child while in foster care.” Specifically, workers must document that the child’s placement takes into account both the appropriateness of the current school and the proximity to the school in which the child was enrolled at the time of placement, and that they have done one of the following:

  • worked with local education agencies to keep the child in the same school, or
  • when it is in the child's best interest to change schools, coordinated with education agencies to successfully transition the child to the new school.

Fostering Connections also permits child welfare agencies to use Title IV-E funds for reasonable transportation costs to help keep a child in her current school after moving. The costs are allowed as “foster care maintenance payments.”

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

Under McKinney-Vento (P. L. 100-77) states must keep each “homeless” youth at the youth’s “school of origin” (the last school he attended before being homeless or the last school in which he was enrolled) unless a school change is in the youth’s best interest. The local education agency must keep homeless youth in the school of origin when possible unless a parent or guardian objects.

The local education agency must transport homeless youth to and from the school of origin if needed. Also, like Fostering Connections, McKinney-Vento requires that, when a child changes schools, the old school transfer records and the new school enroll her at once.

One category of homeless children—youth “awaiting foster care placement”— is not defined, so states must supply their own definition. Delaware defines youth “awaiting…placement” as all youth in care. Other states, as well as some school districts, have negotiated agreements that qualify only some children in care for McKinney-Vento benefits.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Many youth in care have disabilities that entitle them to special education services outlined in the IDEA (P. L. 108-446). While the IDEA does not specifically address school mobility, provisions do promote the continuity of special education services. Under the IDEA:

  • School districts must complete a child’s initial special education evaluation within a specified time. If the child changes districts before the evaluation is done, the new district must finish it within the same timeframe unless the parent decides otherwise.
  • If a student with an IEP (individualized education plan) changes districts mid-year, the new district must offer “services comparable to those…in the previously held IEP” until it accepts that IEP or the parent agrees to a new one.
  • Together, both districts must ensure the swift transfer of all school records.

The IDEA also requires school districts to identify and evaluate certain children, including state wards and “highly mobile” children, to make sure that they receive appropriate education services.

Next Steps

Though federal laws promote educational stability for foster children, we must do more to support every child in care. Laws and policies should:

  • Require local education agencies to help ensure educational stability. Fostering Connections directs child welfare agencies to ensure school stability, but there is no such requirement for education agencies. State requirements that tie the right to school attendance to a child’s current residence, as well as school district rules that require certain records for enrollment, pose obstacles to school stability
  • Promote collaboration between child welfare and education agencies. States need clear directions about which agency determines the child’s educational interests, how agencies can coordinate and fund school transport, and what role juvenile courts play in furthering educational stability. Each agency also needs points of contact to assist the collaboration (e.g., education liaisons in the child welfare agency and vice versa).
  • Strengthen the mandate to transport foster youth to their original schools when it is in their best interests. Accessibility to a youth’s school of origin is crucial for educational continuity, and statutes or regulations should clarify how transportation costs can be covered for foster youth who are not eligible for Title IV-E reimbursements.
  • Collect data to track outcomes. Reliable data about foster children’s school attendance, school moves, and enrollment delays will show where policies and practices could be improved. States must call on both the child welfare and education agencies’ data systems to track the information.

Changes may come at the local, state, or federal level. For example, a recently introduced U.S. Senate bill—the Fostering Success in Education Act—would require states to make sure child welfare and education agencies work together to keep foster youth in their school of origin when it is in their best interests, and to facilitate immediate enrollment when a child changes schools. It also encourages child welfare and local education agencies to work together to help transport the child to her old school, with child welfare covering most transportation costs.

Determining Which School Serves the Child’s Best Interest

Billy, 13, lives in a pre-adoptive home. Suddenly his foster father gets ill, and the adoption falls through. Billy must move to a new family in a new school district.

It is March. If Billy changes schools now, he will have to take subjects that he did not study at his old school. Billy is also close to current teachers and friends and wants to stay at the school. Billy’s new foster parents, however, are active with the local PTA and want him at their school. Both parents also work, so they have no time to drive Billy back and forth to his old school.

Questions to Consider When Making a School Selection5

  • How long is the child’s current placement expected to last, and what is her permanency plan?
  • How many schools has the child attended in recent years?
  • How have moves affected her overall health, and how anxious is she about being in care and upcoming moves?
  • How is the child doing in school and which school can best meet her needs?
  • Which school does the student prefer?
  • How strong are the child’s ties to her current school?
  • Would the transfer happen at a logical time—e.g., after testing, between sports seasons, or when school ends?
  • How would changing schools affect the student’s school credits, extra-curricular activities, and ability to advance a grade or graduate on time?
  • How would the commute to the school of origin affect the child?
  • What school do any siblings attend?
  • Are there any safety concerns?

Under Fostering Connections (and McKinney-Vento in some jurisdictions) Billy can stay at his current school if it is in his best interest. The determination, however, is not that simple:

If Billy transfers mid-year, he might lose credit for school work and have to repeat a grade. His wish to remain where he is, his friends, and his bond with teachers are also compelling reasons to stay. While Billy gets to know his new family, it would be easier if he did not have to adjust to a new school.

On the other hand, since Billy’s new parents are already involved in the school, they could help him transition to the new setting. If the placement is meant to be permanent, there are benefits to having Billy switch schools sooner rather than later.

If the agencies decide Billy should stay in his original school, they must do so without burdening the new family. For instance, Billy could ride with a teacher from his old school who lives near his new home, or the school districts could share transportation costs.

In Conclusion

The Legal Center for Foster Care and Education keeps policy makers, child advocates, and other professionals informed about laws and policies that promote educational success for youth in care. By learning about these rules and programs, we can all champion better outcomes for youth. A good education can open doors to a better life, and youth in and adopted from care deserve a fair chance to acquire the tools they need to realize a brighter tomorrow.

________________________
 
1 National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, Educational Outcomes for Children and Youth in Foster and Out of Home Care (2008). [www.casey.org/Resources/Publications/EducationalOutcomes.htm]

2 Dr. Joy Rogers, Loyola University Department of Education, Education Report of Rule 706 Expert Panel presented in B.H. v. Johnson, 715 F. Supp. 1387 (N.D. Ill. 1989), 1991.

3 Pecora, P., Williams, J., Kessler, R.C., Downs, A.C., O’Brien, K., Hiripi, E., & Morello, S. (2003). Assessing the Effects of Foster Care: Early Results from the Casey National Alumni Study. Seattle, WA: Casey Family Programs. [www.casey.org/Resources/Publications/AssessingEffectsOfFosterCare.htm]

4 Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, Q&A: The Link between Education and Permanency (2009). [www.abanet.org/child/education/publications/qa_link_to_permanency_ final.pdf]

5 Legal Center for Foster Care and Education and the National Center for Homeless Education, Best Practices in Homeless Education: School Selection for Students in Out-of-Home Care (Fall 2009). [www.serve.org/nche/downloads/briefs/school_sel_in_care.pdf]


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phone: 651-644-3036
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