Children in foster care change schools as many as 15 times during their K-12 education. And each time they do, they risk falling behind up to 6 months academically. That’s why the Every Student Succeeds Act, the most significant federal education overhaul in more than a decade, gives states specific guidelines about meeting the needs of youth in the child welfare system.
President Barack Obama signed ESSA into law in December 2015. The bipartisan initiative not only aims to make education equitable for high needs students but also requires states to track the academic progress of foster youth and pay for transportation to keep them in their schools of origin.
Just three months after taking office, however, President Donald Trump delayed the implementation of ESSA’s accountability regulations. But the measure’s foster youth provisions still stand, and states had a year after ESSA’s enactment to implement school transportation plans for such students.
Some states, even ones like California, with a long history of foster youth advocacy, missed the federal government’s swift December 2016 deadline. Colorado, though, is nearly in compliance and has drawn praise from child welfare advocates as a result. Officials there say existing state laws and collaboration between state child welfare agencies, educational institutions and the public have helped them set goals to better serve students in foster care.
Pat Chapman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Education’s federal programs unit, said that state officials have worked diligently to meet ESSA’s requirements for foster youth and other vulnerable students, such as migrant youth, economically disadvantaged youth and English learners.
The state has organized hundreds of presentations about ESSA to thousands of people, according to Chapman. It has presented webinars and actively engaged school districts in the process, he said. The ultimate goal is not to cross off a checklist of ESSA requirements but to implement best practices when educating foster youth, he said.
“I think some states wrote their plans and put it out there and then began discussing it with the public,” Chapman said. “We went on a listening tour, got everybody excited and energized and broke up into committees to make recommendations about the plan and then drafted the plan.”
This process literally took thousands of hours to complete, but Chapman expressed pride in the state’s work.
“I don’t know if it was entirely the best way to do it, but there are multiple ways to skin a cat,” he said.
The Colorado Department of Education has developed a model foster care transportation agreement that meets the federal government’s requirement to have written transportation procedures in place, according to Chapman. While the model agreement includes information about allowable funding sources, it does not prescribe a specific breakdown of costs because state and local funds may be used for this purpose in addition to certain federal programs, he explained.
“We will be disseminating the model agreement soon and will be providing training to school districts in support of its release this spring,” he said.
Working to improve academic outcomes for foster youth has required the Colorado Department of Education to pair up with the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees the Office of Children, Youth and Families.
In 2008, the departments formed an interagency team that meets regularly. Since 2013, the team has reviewed data to measure the academic outcomes of foster youth. The University of Northern Colorado has played a pivotal role in the data-sharing effort, crunching numbers for the agencies.
Elysia Clemens, an associate professor of applied psychology and counselor education at the university, said child welfare advocates knew anecdotally that foster students had poorer outcomes than their peers.
But “we wanted actual state-level data,” Clemens said. “Where are our gaps in graduation rates?”
In Colorado, foster youth switch schools three times on average during high school, according to Clemens. This has led to an on-time average graduation rate of about 30 percent from 2007 to 2014.
“Linking that data and relating it to accountability expectations is why Colorado is far ahead of other states [in ESSA implementation],” Clemens said. “We started this a number of years back, and it’s creating more of a seamless transition.”
Robert Werthwein, director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families, said the data Clemens has compiled has familiarized state officials with the challenges students in foster care face.
“We’re pretty familiar with the length of time its takes the kids to graduate from high school,” Werthwein said. “In 2015, we created an education steering committee that enhanced on this work and built a plan around benchmarks.”
State officials have also used the data to pinpoint the regions in Colorado where foster youth are most likely to transfer schools. And House Bill 1019, which passed in 2008, required school districts to appoint employees as child welfare education liaisons.
“The liaisons collaborate with child placement agencies, county departments, the state department, and schools to ensure proper school placement, transfer and enrollment of foster children,” said Maura McInerney, senior attorney for the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania. “The liaisons work with all parties to ensure a foster child remains in an educational situation that promotes stability. The law also requires schools to transfer education records within five school days and that the receiving school admits these children within five days of receipt of a student’s records.”
McInerney said the partnership between the Colorado departments of education and human services has played an important role in giving schools the resources they need to serve foster youth. She added that collaboration at the state level shows local agencies the significance of collaboration as well.
Kathleen McNaught, of the American Bar Association’s Center for Children and the Law, shared a similar assessment of Colorado’s efforts.
“With that infrastructure, and good collaboration at the state level, they are well positioned to make additions to their state policies, and encourage good practices at the district and county level, which can ultimately result in improved education outcomes for children in care in Colorado,” McNaught said in an email.
While working across the aisle has its challenges, Werthwein of the Office of Children, Youth and Families said the fact that both agencies have the same mission for students in foster care makes collaboration easier. That said, he pointed out that huge disparities exist in Colorado between students in the child welfare system and their peers.
ESSA gives the state additional tools to close the achievement gap between foster youth and their peers in schools.
“My hope is obviously that we create a fair playing ground for these kids,” Werthwein said. “That we don’t create unnecessary red tape and that as a system we are finding solutions for these kids, not having them find their own solutions.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Colorado youth switch schools eight times, on average, rather than three.
**CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that most states, rather than some, had missed the December 2016 deadline for compliance.
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.