Opinion: New report is wake-up call for foster youth education

Having grown up in the foster care system, it’s no surprise to me that foster youth generally don’t do as well as our peers in school. But a new report from the California Child Welfare Co-Investment Partnership could be the wake-up call our state needs to begin to close the gap.

New data systems linking education and foster care system data make it possible to track foster youth’s performance in school, and the results are sobering: In elementary school, three in four foster youth perform below grade level. Only one in 20 foster youth is proficient in math by grade 11, and only one in five in English.

As a former foster youth, I know that behind those statistics are nearly 60,000 young people currently in the system. We share a set of experiences that often deal setbacks to our education, beginning with the neglect or abuse that put us in the child welfare system in the first place.  

I entered foster care at the age of 15 and was fortunate to be placed with my maternal grandmother. This “kinship” arrangement gave me the stability I needed to finish school and to make peace with my past so that I could take control of my future.

Having completed my master’s degree in social work, I know that I’m fortunate to have beaten the odds – this new research shows 35 percent of foster youth who attend community college plan to earn an associate degree but only one in 10 graduate.  

The good news revealed by the new report, “Understanding Foster Youth Educational Outcomes,” is that when foster youth receive the attention and support they need, they can and do succeed. For example, when foster youth have educational champions – people that mentor, tutor, and advocate for them – their graduation rates soar.  

Data also show that school attendance, test scores, and grade point averages for foster youth improve when foster care agencies, schools, and other systems work together to share information and coordinate services. Here in Sacramento County, for example, foster youth raised their GPAs with help from the County Office of Education’s Instructional Case Managers who bring together foster parents, social workers, and teachers to identify each student’s needs and match each with the resources they need to succeed.

Critical to my own success was having the campus-based support I needed to get through college – support the Partnership’s new report says can make all the difference for many more foster youth. Today, 79 college campuses across California combine financial, academic, social/emotional, and logistical support like housing to help former foster youth stay in school and graduate. When foster youth participate in these programs, 71 percent graduate from college, compared to 56 percent of students generally.

I credit the support I received as a student at CSU Sacramento with enabling me to complete my degree while I also juggled work and a new baby. I know this support matters, and that’s why I work with a local organization supporting foster youth – the Foster Youth Education Fund, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – to raise money to help former foster youth stay in school and obtain their degrees.

Ensuring that every foster youth has the opportunity to succeed is also the reason I continue to work with foster youth to push for the policy changes we need to open up opportunities for more young people, including prioritizing educational programs and supports for foster youth, and enabling the sharing of information across systems to allow deeper understanding of the educational needs of foster youth. Now that we know how big the problem is and how to fix it, let’s get to work!    

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