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Q&A: Michelle King discusses LAUSD’s plans for helping foster youth

Guest contributor | March 3, 2016

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Michelle King

By Jeremy Loudenback

In January, the Los Angeles Unified School District chose longtime local teacher and administrator Michelle King to head the nation’s second largest school district. The first African American woman to serve as district superintendent, King will oversee about 650,000 students at more than 900 schools across the city.

LAUSD students include more than 8,000 foster youth, by far the most of any school district in the state. Educational outcomes for foster youth are much worse when compared with peers, including higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates and the lowest participation rate in the state’s testing program.

In recent years, LAUSD had expanded efforts to address the needs of foster youth under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) initiative, such as the addition of several hundred academic counselors devoted to foster youth. But the challenge of meeting the needs of these youth is substantial, and some advocates are concerned about the way the district is distributing the LCFF money.

Not long after starting her new job, King shared her perspective in an email interview with The Chronicle of Social Change on the challenges faced by foster youth, what the district is doing to create a partial-credit policy for them, and what she thinks teachers can do to best support students at risk of dropping out.

The Chronicle of Social Change: During your tenure at LAUSD, what has your experience been with foster youth?

Michelle King: Through the years, I have experienced working with a large number of students in foster care as a teacher, school administrator and as part of the district’s leadership. In those roles, I have come to understand the complex challenges commonly faced by these students and the most effective ways to meet their needs and keep them on track to graduate. I am relying on this experience as a superintendent to help guide and support our amazing Foster Youth Achievement Program.

CSC: LAUSD has the most foster youth of any school district in the state. What sort of challenges, responsibilities and opportunities does that present LAUSD?

King: Quality of educational services provided to youth in foster care is one of the most important factors in determining success in their adult lives. Youth in foster care have traditionally been more at risk of dropping out than their counterparts due to lack of stability in home lives, frequent transitions and adjustments to new settings. Part of our responsibility is ensuring our teachers and administrators are adequately prepared to identify the warning signs among students of falling behind academically or experiencing socio-emotional problems that are liable to interfere with their educational process. This training must be ongoing for all our educators and caregivers given the continuing updates in regulations and legislation. And there is an opportunity here to understand the unique needs of these students, deliver services tailored to their needs and get them to a level playing field where they have the same opportunities to achieve as all other students. Given the size of our district, we have the opportunity to influence achievement on a very wide level.

CSC: According to one account, 55 percent of California’s foster youth drop out of high school. Based on your track record as both a teacher and principal, what’s the most important thing schools can do to support at-risk students like foster youth?

King: The most important thing we can do is keep these students focused on graduating and prepared to go to college or to start the career of their choice. In order to achieve this, we have counselors who specialize in issues concerning foster care who work closely with students to align services and interventions to the unique challenges they face. We also have systems in place to ensure that students are appropriately credited for coursework and other requirements they need to meet to stay on track to graduation, particularly as they transition among schools. Creating a welcoming student environment to help ease transitions and orient students to new settings is included in our Positive Behavior Support Plan.

CSC: Foster-youth students transfer schools at an alarming rate because of placement changes and other volatilities. Helping these students gain partial credits during school changes has been linked to helping many graduate. What can LAUSD do under your watch to improve its partial-credit policy? How feasible is it to quickly provide students who transfer with an adjusted account of their credits?

King: Our Foster Youth Achievement Program counselors are collaborating with appropriate school staff to ensure that partial credits are captured and reflected in students’ transcripts. This includes provision of detailed training to over 300 academic counselors to build capacity and proficiency in addressing the needs of our many students in foster care. We are capitalizing on the data match between records from the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and our district’s internal student records system so that counselors are able to review records proactively to ensure students are receiving the credits they need to stay on track with minimal impediments to progress. We are also allocating additional funding to the district’s academic counselors to ensure we remain on top of all students’ individualized graduation plans; this is particularly imperative for at-risk populations such as youth in foster care.

CSC: Though (DCFS) and community-based organizations play a key role in assisting foster youth, what is the role of LAUSD in helping foster youth with school stability?

King: The most important role we play is continuing to cultivate a strong partnership with the Department of Children and Family Services to ensure that the work of our academic counselors and educational service providers is aligned to the work of their social workers. We are also working to streamline enrollment processes to minimize any delays in getting students transferring to new schools into the appropriate classes they need and continuing to learn in a timely manner. We also advocate for the rights of students to their schools of origin by shaping policies that help students remain in stable learning environments and following their peers through families of schools even if they are transferred to homes outside a school’s attendance area.

CSC: LAUSD has made great strides toward providing an increased amount of resources, including counselors to foster youth, under the Local Control Funding Formula program. In its latest Local Control and Accountability Plan, LAUSD described a plan to track school stability/mobility for foster youth. What is the status of that plan?

King: The district’s current data collection and accountability system is capturing baseline data regarding tracking school stability and mobility among youth in foster care. Our Foster Youth Achievement Program is leading the way in developing a case management system that involves careful monitoring and tracking significant indicators of successful interventions. The program is evolving rapidly to improve the quality of service and care we provide youth in foster care. You can keep updated on our progress at any time by visiting the Foster Youth Achievement Program page.

This article was published in partnership with The Chronicle of Social Change. Jeremy Loudenback is the organization’s child trauma editor.

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