National “Education Champion” Project Chooses Third Pilot Site: Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz, Calif. will be the third pilot site for a national education initiative for foster youth that assigns an “education champion” to each foster youth who enters care.

The champions, who will be funded as a pilot program of the National Center For Youth Law’s FosterEd initiative, will preside over the child’s educational rights and maintain educational stability.

“The project is designed to ensure that every youth in care has an involved adult in their education just like any other youth,” said Jesse Hahnel, director of FosterEd. “The goal is to choose someone who is going to be in the child’s life for the long term and after care.”

The theory behind the project is that if more adults work with youth while in foster care on educational success, less youth will fall victim to poor outcomes after care. Over 22 percent of former foster children experience homelessness, and almost 25 percent will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the child welfare system, according to NCYL.

The California pilot has been in the works since 2011. It is now the third state to join FosterEd’s mission to provide youth in care with education mentors.

Programs also exist in Indiana and Arizona. According to the program’s internal analysis, hundreds of youth in the Indiana state pilot have obtained needed educational services and supports. For both Indiana and Arizona, Hahnel says over 95 percent of foster children served by Foster Ed have had their educational needs met.

The program identifies family members, friends of the family, coaches, court appointed special advocates and even biological parents as possible education champions.

“Most foster children return home, so we want that home to be providing support for their education,” said Hahnel.

Preparation of the education champions is a three-step process. Once selected, he or she is assessed by the county on their level of skills and knowledge about the education system.

A training is then tailored to the mentor’s needs to ensure he or she has an understanding of educational resources, resources, technical assistance, and effective mentoring.

Finally, the mentor works with the youth to carry out an education plan of action.

Some of the education champions already have access to the student’s academic records. Others have been deemed education rights holders by judicial appointment, and therefore are a natural fit for being education champions and keeping track of students’ progress in school.

Hahnel said FosterEd selected Santa Cruz after consultation with California’s  departments of education and social services, as well as the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Child Welfare Directors Association. Santa Cruz was the only county recommended by all of those groups, according to Hahnel.

“No individual agency or organization can single-handedly enable foster children to succeed in school; improving their educational outcomes requires a collaborative approach,” said Judy Yokel, division director of Santa Cruz County Family and Children Services, in a press release.  “This project is a partnership between critical organizations in social services and education and will result in foster children being able to realize their educational dreams.”

This pilot project will cost an estimated $1.75 million, with financial support from the Stuart Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the TK Foundation, and USA Funds. The project was also supported by a grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Once the pilot proves successful, Hahnel says FosterEd intends to spread the program statewide using state funds and state agency partnerships.

Hahnel says while FosterEd will not expand to other states for at least another year, interested states or counties can contact him for more information about the program.

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