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Commentary: Foster youth and homeless students need stable schools — and L.A. County has a plan to provide them

Dr. Debra Duardo | May 24, 2019

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Here in L.A. County, we have students facing incredible challenges:

• 38% of all children in foster care in California reside in Los Angeles County.

• Only 58% of young people in foster care graduate from high school.

• Nearly 10% of the homeless population in Los Angeles County is under 18.

To help these students achieve and succeed, we need to collaborate across the county. The Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) is best known for our role in fiscal oversight, but our responsibilities are much broader than that. We are responsible for providing comprehensive technical assistance and support strategies for student achievement and school improvement. Vulnerable students across the county need results, and that means helping our 80 school districts and 315 charter schools step up together.

Although foster and homeless youth can share many of the same challenges, their specific service needs can be very different. Students in foster care may have been removed from a home due to abuse or neglect. They might be dealing with significant trauma and fear. Because foster youth may change schools multiple times during a year, they can be difficult to identify, track and monitor.

Homeless youth can fly under the radar as well, which makes accessing services even harder. Homeless families are often afraid to share their situation because they fear that their child might be taken away (this is not true, and families in need should ask their schools for help). Sometimes families do not think of themselves as homeless because they are not on the street. They don’t realize the broad range of circumstances that would qualify them for support—including staying with family or at a hotel.

But for both of these populations, a stable school environment is key to achieving academic success.

How, then, do we go about ensuring that every school, in every single one of our districts, is equipped to identify and support struggling students and their families?

On Thursday, the Los Angeles County Office of Education brought together school district personnel as well as organizations that serve homeless youth and youth in foster care to collaborate on an extreme and pressing problem in our county: the significant and growing achievement gap for homeless youth and youth in the foster care system.

Everyone from homeless and foster care liaisons, front office personnel, principals, deans of students, site and district administrators, social workers, court appointed special advocates and counselors participated in the fouth “Piecing it Together” symposium dedicated to sharing best practices to address the educational needs of foster and homeless youth.

The highlight was a panel of six students who articulated how being homeless or in foster care had impacted their academic success and how all of us, as collaborative partners, could best support youth in achieving their goals. The youngest panelist was in sixth-grade. She had been moved around so much that she missed half a year of school. She wanted to be in school. Her message was simple – make sure kids are going to school and make sure you’re following up.

The symposium was not an isolated convening, but rather a noteworthy component of the comprehensive structure we have built at LACOE.

We have established regional learning networks where our program specialist brings together 10 to 12 school districts that meet regularly to workshop specific topics and issues decided upon by consensus. Past topics have included: trauma-informed practices, data, accountability, enrollment, behavior and legislation.

In addition to those networks, since 2017, LACOE has convened our school districts and 300-plus independent charter schools quarterly to collaborate on how best to serve our foster youth and homeless students. 

Because Los Angeles County is so large, school districts can get lost in the shuffle. Districts can become siloed and might not know how to navigate the process for seeking out support. Let’s be real: districts have to grapple with a lot of unfunded mandates. Community profiles are different, but compliance requirements and best practices are not. Connecting with a community of peers is the best way to get things done.

Our students deserve nothing less.

Dr. Debra Duardo is the superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which serves over 2 million preschool and school-age students and 80 school districts, including L.A. Unified. She has 30 years of professional experience working with at-risk students and their families.

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