Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

As deadlines near, LA schools debate how to help foster youth

A school bus drives by on Oct. 8, 2008 in Los Angeles. L.A. Unified is home to over 8,000 foster youth, but does little to target their specific needs.
A school bus drives by on Oct. 8, 2008 in Los Angeles. L.A. Unified is home to over 8,000 foster youth, but does little to target their specific needs.
David McNew/Getty Images

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When Gov. Jerry Brown announced a new boost in school funding — reversing years of cuts — he tied some strings around the money: districts would be paid more for needy kids and they'd have to come up with plans on how the money would help English-learners and students from low income families or in foster care.

It's that last group that's particularly hard to reach — and Los Angeles Unified school district officials are taking a hard look at their limited foster youth services.

“Unfortunately, to be honest with you, we see a lot of the poor outcomes, because they fall between the cracks, because they are so highly mobile" said Debra Duardo, director of student health and human services for L.A. Unified.

L.A. Unified is responsible for 8,278 foster children's education, about a third of the foster students statewide. Duardo said only seven employees are assigned to help them. The best students can expect is to be folded into federally-funded services offered to other types special needs students: free meals, reading and math interventions, special education.

And the consequences of foster youths' struggles in school reverberate.

"Not only educationally, but in life," Duardo said. "These are the kids that are not only dropping out of school, but are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, and more likely to be unemployed.”

Foster kids are at the rock bottom of nearly every performance measure: Seven in 10 are behind in school and nearly five in 10 don't graduate, according to a recent statewide report.

Education services for foster students is often more complicated than other high-need youth because they move homes and schools frequently, Duardo said.

L.A. Unified has to figure out how to reverse course by July 1, when all districts are required to submit plans of action and accountability to the California Department of Education as part of the the new Local Control Funding law.

L.A. Unified is projected to get a budget increase of $332.7 million next school year, and $268.3 million for the following to help its struggling populations.

But Superintendent John Deasy and the school board have repeatedly postponed discussing the details for months, narrowing the window for public discussion.

Insecure and alone

Selvin, a high school junior, has been in foster care for six years. He's been slid into 10 different homes with 10 unfamiliar families around Los Angeles.  

He’s bounced around a lot these last couple of years, enrolling in seven high schools. Every few months, he had to start over somewhere new.

"It's kind of awkward, because don't know them, they just toss me in a random home with a random family," said Selvin, whose last name is not being published to protect his privacy. "I feel embarrassed, insecure, lonely."

It's gotten better since he started crashing at his older sister's house in South Gate, he said. But even that meant starting yet again in another new school mid-year, like walking into a theatre in the middle of a movie. 

When Selvin showed up to English class, his new teacher handed him a test on a book he had never heard of, the Catcher in the Rye.

"I looked at the quiz, and I was lost," he said. "I started reading the questions to see if I could know some of the answers, but I was totally lost.”

He’s struggled pull up that failing grade ever since.

Selvin's lucky.  Paige Fern, an advocate who works with foster youth took on his case over the summer after meeting him at a summer camp at UCLA called First Star.

“There is no parent stepping up for them in school," said Fern, an attorney with an advocacy group called Alliance for Children's Rights. "There is no one who is stable who knows what’s going on in their school history.”

Selvin said until Fern got involved, he didn't know he was behind for graduation.

“I didn’t know what I needed to graduate," Selvin said. "I didn’t know how many credits I had.”

Figuring it out was painstaking, Fern said. She found his grades weren’t always following him when he got to a new school.

“We tracked every single grade, every attendance record, every behavior record, every special education record that was in existence," Fern said, eventually recouping lost credits and developing a plan to graduate.

"I will be the loudest person at high school graduation and I will have a box a tissues with me," Fern said.

Refocusing on foster youth

Susan McClure, an attorney for Public Counsel, said L.A. Unified's seven staffers aren't enough to help kids like Selvin.

"If you have somebody who wears a lot of hats, people are kind of tugging at them in all different directions so they aren't necessarily going to be able to develop that in depth knowledge or dedicate the attention that foster youth need," McClure said.  

The school system has long had a data system to track the outcomes of these students, and officials share information with child welfare workers at the Department of Children and Family Services every week. But that doesn't seem to help them succeed in school.

Foster youth are twice as likely to repeat a grade and twice as likely to drop out as their peers, according to data complied by the public-interest law firm Public Counsel. And they're three times as likely to be expelled.

Public Counsel has teamed up with the Alliance for Children's Rights and several other advocacy groups to form the Coalition for Education Equality for Foster Youth. Together, they are recommending districts such as L.A. Unified adopt a slew of accountability and other policy reforms ahead of the Local Control Funding deadline.

“This is the opportunity for us to kind of swoop in and get those additional resources," McClure said.

To start, she said L.A. Unified should create an entirely new position — foster youth counselor — and hire at least one for every 5o foster kids to keep case loads manageable. That would come out to about 160 new positions.

The counselors would do the kind of organizing and coaching Fern has done with Selvin. They would communicate with social workers and teachers, gather information on education needs, ensure students are getting appropriate academic supports, and are on track for graduation.

The coalition is also lobbying for more school stability. They want school officials to decrease the number of times foster youth are transferred, especially to continuation or alternative schools where student performance tends to be much lower.