Santa Clara County Court is first to focus on education of foster youthCollaboration will give children a better chance to graduate
In pockets across the nation, a wide range of agencies and stakeholders are coming to the realization that if they want to level the educational playing field for students experiencing foster care, they will have to collaborate on a level never accomplished before. Just last month, Santa Clara County Superior Court, long a leader in innovation dedicated to improving the lives of children, announced the launch of the Middle School Education Court, the nation’s first education-specific court for middle school foster students.
The Middle School Education Court (MSEC) brings together lawyers, social workers, education specialists, child advocates, school district liaisons, and community leaders to give middle-school-aged foster children a fair chance at succeeding in secondary school and college. Through this unique collaboration, the court will ensure the collection of school records, needs-assessment evaluations, and development of educational plans and protocols to support middle-school-age children in foster care. While still in its nascent stages, the architects of MSEC anticipate improving overall academic performance, test scores, GPAs, and attendance rates.
As a journalist with a keen focus on foster care issues and as a mentor deeply involved in the lives of a pair of young men who went through foster care, I am acutely aware of the difficulties students experiencing foster care face. Studies show that foster youth change schools one to two times each year that they are in out-of-home placements due to a combination of limited collaboration between the silos of education and child welfare and sparse funding for transportation. In California, a study on mobility found that high school students with even one move were half as likely to graduate as those who didn’t switch schools.
The social and emotional complications of moving are exacerbated by the difficulties agencies have in transferring student records in a timely manner. Nearly half of foster youth surveyed in a 2000 New York study reported that they were kept out of school because of lost or misplaced records. In a world of instability, school is quite often a critical and primary lifeline.
Karen Scussel of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, one of MSEC’s partner agencies, is proud of the program’s success in compiling thorough records. “The level of collaboration is really tremendous,” said Scussel.
While MSEC is a heartening example of coordinated efforts to help foster youth, the fact that it’s the only such court in the nation also speaks to a long overdue focus on the educational needs of foster youth. Students in foster care score unacceptably lower than their peers in all academic measures here in California and nationally.
According to a 2008 California Foster Youth Services report to the governor and the Legislature, 75 percent of students in foster care function below their grade level; 83 percent are held back by grade three, and 46 percent become high school dropouts, compared with 16 percent of non-foster youth.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable educational challenges for children who experience foster care, I have seen firsthand how the type of intense collaboration occurring in Santa Clara County can have dramatic, positive effects on current and former foster youth. In Sacramento’s Laguna Creek High School, a youth advocacy program called Courageous Connection so successfully linked services for foster youth that 100 percent of students in the program graduated from high school in the last two years, a significantly higher rate than the general student population.
The Stuart Foundation-funded Guardian Scholars program has shown that former foster youth given wrap-around services in the college setting have higher college retention rates than average students. And in Baltimore, tight collaboration between the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and Baltimore City Public Schools has kept foster child attendance rates on par with or better than that of traditional students.
When resources are invested in foster youth, the results can be staggering. Santa Clara County Superior Court’s new Middle School Education Court holds incredible promise for the students it is serving and contributes to a larger movement bent on equalizing educational opportunity for all students.
Daniel Heimpel is the director of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), a project of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. FMC harnesses the power of journalism and media to drive public and political will behind policy and practice that improve the lives of children experiencing foster care through increased stability and educational opportunity.