As California continues to work to address educational disparities for foster students, an increasing number of counties in the state are buying into a homegrown data-sharing system designed to improve academic outcomes for the state’s foster youth.
Since its rollout in 2000, 41 of California’s 58 counties have integrated Foster Focus, a web-based program that helps bridge the data gap between the education, child welfare and probation officials who share responsibility for the state’s school-aged foster youth.
Developed by the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) with a grant from the Stuart Foundation, Foster Focus allows designated county agencies to compile, access and securely share data on the foster youth they serve. It also alerts caseworkers early on when academic problems arise, so that foster children don’t fall further behind at school.
Foster youth have alarmingly high dropout rates, according to the National Center for Youth Law. Foster Focus, which is currently only available in California, helps users identify and track foster kids more quickly and accurately than they’ve been able to in the past, with the intention that keeping closer tabs on these vulnerable students will lead to increased school stability and, in turn, improved overall outcomes.
“It’s been a blessing. Having that data right there — just open it up, look up a kid — it’s so much better,” said Sandra Stevens, an educational liaison for foster youth in Merced County.
Stevens has been working to help foster youth succeed in school for 17 years. She said in the beginning, it was all phone calls and faxing requests — a huge time suck.
“It was horrendous, awful, to do all of that work,” she said. When Merced County signed up for Foster Focus, it meant less time tracking down information, and more time focused on actually getting kids the services they need.
Data related to a youngster’s foster status is automatically imported to the Foster Focus program from the statewide database utilized by California’s county child protective services agencies. Local county offices of education feed in weekly statewide education reports from the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), which identifies known foster youth, listing current school enrollment and the educational rights holder, or the person who is legally designated to make educational decisions on the youth’s behalf.
Counties have the option of adding automatic links between school districts’ information systems and the Foster Focus program, offering a way to access more detailed data about students’ academic performance, such as current grades. With these links, daily imports into the Foster Focus system provide updated data on behavior incidents, detailed course lists and more.
Linked school district data also provides a history of enrollment and daily attendance — two helpful things for caseworkers and educators to track, as repeatedly changing schools and chronic absenteeism have historically contributed to poor academic outcomes for foster youth.
“When you put all this data in one place, you can do really cool things,” said Bridget Stumpf, a technical services project specialist with SCOE and the primary administrator of Foster Focus.
For example, Foster Focus has alerts that pop up if, say, a student’s attendance has suddenly plummeted or if behavioral issues arise. It even alerts users when a child has moved — something that schools and even social workers struggle to effectively track.
Jill Rowland, education program director at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, said the program’s ability to overlay school district boundaries and zip codes, along with tracking students’ enrollment history, makes it worlds easier to focus on school stability throughout the many placement changes foster kids are often subject to.
A challenge for Foster Focus is demonstrating that the benefits outweigh the effort required. For school administrators and social workers already buried under massive workloads, adding in yet another program can seem like a burden. Some data must be entered manually into Foster Focus, especially in counties that haven’t paid to directly link school districts to the program.
“Nobody likes to do data entry,” said Kimberly Silva, a research associate with the Kern County superintendent’s office. “They think it’s just one more system.”
But, she said, it’s proven a time saver in many cases. Before Foster Focus, social workers or probation officers often had to drive out to a youth’s former school to pick up confidential documents. Secure data sharing means they can access those records without leaving their desks. In counties with rural or remote counties, like Kern, this is especially helpful.
Participating counties pay SCOE directly for access to Foster Focus. Counties with 500 or fewer youth under DCFS or probation jurisdiction pay a base fee of $1,500 per year. Larger counties pay an extra $1,100 per year per each additional 500 youth. Linking in school districts for an automated data import is a one-time fee of $5,000.
The program’s word-of-mouth spread throughout the state indicates its usefulness, but not much exists to illustrate the impact on foster youth themselves — but that, too, is coming. Fresno County’s Office of Education is just now getting its Foster Focus links established, but by next year they’ll be tracking a number of impact indicators such as graduation rates and behavior trends, according to foster youth educational services coordinator Pamela Hancock.
The idea of data sharing comes with significant privacy concerns, especially when it comes minors. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), protects the privacy of education records, much the way the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — commonly referred to as HIPAA — protects confidential medical data.
“Protecting the privacy of our kids is very import, but there are specific FERPA exceptions specifically to let social workers, probation officers and education offices coordinate,” Rowland explained. “It’s just about if it’s done thoughtfully and with training.”
To ensure security, Foster Focus is a closed system, and all participating counties are signed onto contracts dictating the exchange of information. Anyone who wants access to the data must be approved by the local office of education before being added to the system by SCOE.
Some counties — including Los Angeles County, home to the country’s biggest population of foster youth — still use separate, closed data systems that share information among county agencies, but not with other counties. Stumpf said these counties can still partner with Foster Focus to share data without fully switching over to the program.
“Our stake in this game is serving the youth … so if your county has something else that’s really working then, great, we’ll figure out a way to exchange [data],” Stumpf said.