Children involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems face countless barriers to educational success. Our historic failure to address these challenges has resulted in a dramatic achievement gap between these youth and their peers. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law in December, provides an opportunity — and a responsibility — for states to begin narrowing this gap.
Removed from their families due to abuse or neglect, many foster youth are forced to move from home to home, and school to school. Along the way, records are lost, caregivers struggle to transport students to and from class, and school days — many times, even months — are missed.
These youth, already facing traumatic changes in their home lives, must repeatedly adapt to new teachers, new classrooms and new peers. The results are heartbreaking. Foster youth are three times as likely to drop out of school as their peers not in care. Although the majority dream of going to college, only a small minority — two out of 100 according to one study — earn a bachelor’s degree. The consequences follow them into adulthood. Later in life, foster care alumni are more likely than their peers to experience homelessness, incarceration and unemployment.
Youth involved with the juvenile justice system are also at a high risk for poor academic outcomes. Systemic factors, including unfair or ineffective school discipline policies, too often push youth into the system. Not only are these youth chronically behind in school, but a woeful two out of three drop out of school after they exit a juvenile justice facility. If we really want these students to succeed, we need to remove the barriers to academic success, not make education more difficult for them.
ESSA promotes school stability for youth in care through several key provisions. First, it requires that foster youth who change foster home placements be allowed to remain in their “school of origin” when it is in their best interest to do so. Second, when school changes are best for the child — perhaps because the child requests such a change, or because attending a new school would be safer or would provide a better education — the new school must enroll the student immediately and arrange for transfer of school records.
These simple protections have the potential to prevent many unnecessary school moves and to ensure that when transitions do occur, they are as smooth as possible and do not result in missed school days, placement in the wrong school or classes, or disruptions in special education services.
ESSA also requires collaboration across education agencies and child welfare agencies to provide transportation and to meet children’s educational needs.
Under ESSA, states will — for the first time — be required to disaggregate student achievement and graduation rates to show how foster youth are performing relative to their peers. Bringing this crucial data to light will allow both policymakers and the public to better understand the foster youth achievement gap and, hopefully, spur more efforts to tackle it.
Finally, ESSA also expands protections for youth in the juvenile justice system. It modifies Title I, Part D (a federal funding stream for prevention and intervention programs for students who are neglected, delinquent or at risk) by increasing requirements on state and local educational agencies, as well as correctional facilities, that accept the funding.
Some of the most significant changes focus on streamlining the transition for youth going into and out of juvenile justice facilities. Agencies and facilities must collaborate to promote:
- uninterrupted educational services for youth during these moves
- educational assessments for youth as soon as they enter facilities
- smooth transfer of records and academic credits
- timely re-enrollment in a school program that best meets youths’ needs once they leave a facility
- meaningful education opportunities in the community upon re-entry.
ESSA prioritizes attainment of a regular high school diploma and measures program success, in part, on increasing this metric to ensure that youth are not inappropriately pushed into GED programs. These changes help ensure that the systems responsible for rehabilitating youth and developing their skills indeed help them fulfill their potential rather than casting them aside.
With ESSA, there is an opportunity to make a national impact on the educational outcomes of youth in the state’s care. The challenge lies in successful implementation. State and local education and child welfare agencies must work closely with each other and with families, correctional facilities and other providers to ensure all policies reflect new requirements — and that school staff have the information, training and support they need to put them into practice.
All these partners must keep lines of communication open and embrace their roles as proactive leaders in this work.
When the disaggregated foster youth graduation data becomes available, all those serving them will need to take a hard look at how they are performing, and design and implement joint strategies to help them stay in school and engaged in learning. We look forward to working with states as they put these new requirements into practice and take important steps to close the achievement gap for youth in foster care and the juvenile justice systems.
Kate Burdick is a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, one of the partner organizations in the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education (with the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law and Education Law Center-PA).
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