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Analysis: The pandemic has left students in foster care even more detached from classrooms and support systems. Here’s how LA educators and policymakers can help

Hailly Korman and Justin Trinidad | October 1, 2020

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The more than 7,000 youth in foster care in the Los Angeles Unified School District experience significant obstacles in receiving an uninterrupted, quality education. A student in foster care is likely to encounter multiple, overlapping agencies, programs, and service providers when moving schools, especially if crossing district or county lines. And their academic and health records lag far behind them — a source of universal frustration.

Now, with COVID-19 cases rising and schools often starting the fall with distance learning, youth in foster care have fewer touchpoints from educators and case workers, leaving them even more vulnerable during this crisis.

While it may sound bureaucratic, what the city needs is a centralized data system linking education data, like special education plans and course completion, with other child-serving systems, like child welfare and mental health services.

As we discussed in our recent report, youth in foster care tend to move around frequently, work with a number of adults who may not talk to one another, or have significant unmet mental or physical health needs, and states and districts must remove critical barriers so that youth in foster care can better access school choice options. Common obstacles in accessing school choice are lack of transportation, narrow definitions of sibling preference that leave out children in foster care, and insufficient information available to adults in their lives, all culminating with youth in foster care being with less likely to participate in school choice options, be that a charter school, magnet school, or other traditional public school.

States and cities can make small policy changes that have a big impact on youth in foster care. Among the recommendations in the report, all schools, including charter schools, should immediately enroll students in foster care, even if the application or enrollment deadline is passed and allow any trusted adult in the youth’s life to submit an application to schools of choice. A delay in enrolling and attending school can have detrimental effects on a student in foster care, especially in a time when connections between schools and families are even more at risk. At the state level, states must reduce burdens for local governments to provide transportation funding for youth in foster care to get to school and ensure that foster siblings in a home are treated as siblings in school lottery and waitlist policies.

Finally, states and districts must invest in data systems for the agencies tasked with serving youth in foster care. Through strong data systems, those working with youth can understand their situations quickly and access necessary support services.

California has a strong foundation in place, including tracking education outcomes and graduation rates of students in foster care on state report cards. And LA Unified is one of the first districts in the country to provide disaggregated data for youth in foster care and further disaggregate that data in charter schools.

But city leaders must close remaining data gaps. LA Unified does not participate in a county-wide Education Passport System (EPS), a pilot program that integrates academic and demographic data from school districts and child welfare agencies. Systems like EPS are especially helpful for students who may cross district lines. Leaders in LA Unified have been tinkering with the current system rather than integrating data sharing countywide, and information sharing among agencies, districts, and schools is still limited. Currently, LA Unified has just one staff person to respond to all student records requests.

The ability for social workers, educators, and foster care families to access real-time documentation, such as academic transcripts and immunization records, is critical and would save significant staff time currently spent trying to identify, locate, and request documents. And for youth in foster care, it would mean they can be better supported through this crisis and beyond.

It’s up to the adults across agencies to make systems work for youth in foster care and ensure that they always have access to strong and high-quality education opportunities. Focusing on building data systems will have outsized impact: it signals that their education and well-being is of critical importance.

Hailly T.N. Korman is a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners. Justin Trinidad most recently served as an analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.

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