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It’s an exciting time for High School graduation rates in the United States!  Just last spring and for the first time in history, the national high school graduation rates soared past 80%, based on data from 2012.  Substantial improvements have been made every year since 2006, with the biggest improvements in high school graduation among Latino students at +15% and African-American students at +9%.

Sadly, these very promising increases are not found for foster youth.  For instance, Colorado’s Departments of Education and Human Services recently reported that while 77% of all high school students in Colorado graduate on time, only 27.5% of foster youth do.  In fact, the timely graduation rates for foster youth are below those for homeless (50.4%), low-income (52.8%), and even migrant youth (62.6%).

The findings in California aren’t much better.  While the overall high school graduation rate is 84%, the rate for foster youth is 58%.[1]

The picture in Connecticut seems downright bleak.  According to the Departments of Children and Families and of Education, foster youth are far more likely to have special education needs, miss classes, and receive school suspensions.   Some of these stem directly from less desirable foster placements where “permanency” in one’s life is only a concept, not a reality.

Despite the improving high school graduation patterns nationally, foster youth attend and graduate from high school at significantly lower rates than other teens in a pattern repeated across the states.  Without question, these lower graduation rates are linked with less successful independent living, once youth leave care.

This is unacceptable and must change.

There are at least 10 things that could improve this picture.

1.    Reduce high school drop out rates.  Foster youth drop out of high school at more than twice the rates of all other youth.  Social workers, educators and foster parents must be better educated on the signs that a youth is about to quit school and how to address the factors leading to those signs.

“The kids I work with don’t have much of a chance in high school.  I’ve tried working with teachers, principals, and counselors.  They’ve all been well-intentioned, but don’t really understand foster kids and the challenges they face.”  Tim O., Social worker, Montana

2.    Focus on educational basics. Standardized educational testing is founded on basic, core courses such as math and English.  Even when foster youth have placement disruptions and move to different schools, all care providers (social workers, parents, teachers) need to focus on those basic educational requirements.  Without a solid grounding on these basics, youth rarely have positive academic outcomes in general or on any subcomponent of the high school curricula.

3.    Monitor educational achievement.  Foster youth are far less likely to participate in state-based educational achievement tests which can be used to inform teachers of learning difficulties and challenges early in the educational process.  It’s essential to know just how well or how challenged foster youth are in their educational process and as early as possible.  Standardized tests of educational achievement can provide those diagnostics.

4.    Improve high school placements.  One report notes that foster youth are far more likely to be enrolled in lower-performing schools than other youth.[1]  Child welfare administrators and social workers must work more closely with school systems to ensure that foster youth are placed in at least average-performing high schools. It’s not difficult to extend this argument that foster youth – because of the myriad challenges of being in substitute care – should be placed in highest-performing schools.

5.    Keep Youth in ONE school.  Foster youth are far more likely than youth in the general population to change schools during the school year and from year to year.  School placement changes pose a major problem for the academic success of foster youth.  It’s perplexing that under the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless youth are guaranteed that they can consistently attend one school during an academic year, but foster youth do not have this same guarantee in most parts of the country. Keeping foster youth in one high school while in care is the least we can do to support their academic progress.

“When I entered foster care at age 11, I had a B+ average in school.  In foster care, things got bad fast. I went to 6 different high schools in 5 years while in foster care and just squeaked by with a D average.  Now the only chance I have is relearning so much in community college.”  Samantha W., age 20, Indiana

6.    “Hard-wire” connections between child welfare and educational systems.  Many child welfare agencies focus exclusively on child welfare basics:  safety, permanency, well-being.  Schools focus on educating students.  Foster youth are in the care of both systems, but unfortunately those systems rarely collaborate on that care.  That must change. Leaders and administrators in both systems should regularly meet, identify challenges, and create collaborative methods of support the youth in their care.

“We’d love to keep high school placements for foster youth down to one school but without coordination with the social welfare system, we’re helpless.”  Rachel W., High School Principal, Texas

7.    Create Foster Youth Educational Advisory Boards.  Our experience at the Downs Group LLC is that whenever foster youth are asked for input, they give it, and gladly.  And, when child welfare agencies ask for input, receive it, and operationalize that input, major systems change is the result!  This approach can be especially helpful when it comes to academic challenges and successes.  While many states have Foster Youth advisory groups and boards, their foci are usually on child welfare, not educational issues.  I’d urge creation of special Foster Youth Educational Advisory Boards whose primary mission is to work at the interface of child welfare and educational systems.

8.    Increase the use of alternative, web- and computer-based learning. Computer-based approaches are portable; schools are not.  Since foster youth regrettably move often, portable learning strategies are promising.  Some child welfare systems severely restrict youth access to the Internet and on-line resources.  It is no longer acceptable for foster youth to have access to the Internet only at school or the public library.  Every youth must have daily, routine, computer access where they live.

“I’ve seen many students I either knew were in foster care or I suspected they were.  But there was a curtain of secrecy that they were in foster homes.  I wish I had been better educated on foster care in general, and how to help those students.  I felt helpless.”  Caroline J., high school guidance counselor, California

9.    Identify an adult Foster Youth Champion in every High School.  Some large universities have established a foster alumni champion who is identified publicly as an ombudsperson or supporter for them.  This champion is well-trained on foster youth issues and challenges and one of the key responsibilities is advocacy and support for foster alumni.  High schools need to do the same thing.  This champion might be an identified teacher, a counselor, an administrator, or coach who receives training on the needs of and keys to success for foster youth.

10.Create a Foster Youth Alliance in every High School.  For LGBTQ students, a Gay-Straight-Alliance (GSA) is a safe place to touch base with others who may be struggling with bullying, coming out, and identity concerns.  GSAs have proven a highly valuable and effective resource.[6]  A Foster Youth Alliance (FYA) could create the same type of safe environment for problem solving and support for foster youth development. The only requirement for a GSA is a faculty sponsor, a requirement that should prove easy in most high schools.

Foster youth attend and graduate from high schools at alarmingly low rates.  The recent increases in overall graduation rates above 80% are great, but we now need to focus more attention on those students for whom these increases are not yet a reality.

Did you know that there are educational support programs for foster youth that have boosted high school graduation rates well above 90%?

Yes, it’s true of several programs across the nation.  Want to increase the high school graduation rates for foster youth and other vulnerable youth?  Consider bringing our course “Boosting High School Graduation Rates for Foster Youth” to your agency or school!


Footnoted Resources
[1] Barrat, V. X. & Berliner, B.  (2013).  The Invisible Achievement Gap, Part 1:  Education Outomces of Students in Foster Care in California’s Public Schools.  San Francisco:  WestEd.
[2] Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2011).  The social environment and suicide attempts in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.  Pediatrics, 127(5), 896-903.

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Dr. Chris Downs has devoted much of his professional career to improving services and outcomes for older, at-risk youth. Chris is President of The Downs Group LLC, based in Seattle and has the pleasure of working with many talented professionals in child welfare and allied areas including his company Associates.