Improving Educational Outcomes for Foster Children

How FosterEd works across agencies, silos, and sectors to provide academic support to students who need it most.

While working as a Teach for America fellow in the Washington, D.C., and New York City public school systems, Jesse Hahnel quickly discovered that his students in foster care often faced staggering educational challenges -- frequent school transfers, a lack of communication between their school and the local child welfare agency, absence of stable academic support and guidance -- that put them at a disadvantage compared to other students. Research consistently shows that students in foster care have poor educational outcomes, a problem exacerbated by the fact that school districts are often unaware of which of their students is in foster care in the first place. Yet “this is ... a population of students to whom we collectively, as a society, have a unique moral and legal obligation,” Jesse told The Intersector Project, when speaking to us recently.

Jesse eventually left the classroom to work in education reform at the KIPP Foundation. But “always in the back of my mind … was the idea that at some point I wanted to go back and really focus on this issue of helping foster children succeed in school,” he said. And in 2009, Jesse did just that. After earning a law degree and going to work for the National Center for Youth Law in California, Jesse created a program called FosterEd, an initiative that works to improve the academic outcomes of foster children by ensuring they are supported by educational champions and strengthened by education teams.

FosterEd is distinctive in its focus on breaking down silos between government agencies, public schools, and courts that ultimately disadvantage foster children, and in enabling collaboration among state entities, and other non-profits and businesses that can contribute to their well-being. Said Jesse, “It’s impossible for any one agency or system to improve the educational outcomes of foster children by themselves.”

Educational Champions and Teams

FosterEd launched its first pilot in 2010 in Marion County, Indiana, focusing on two core strategies. The first: Every child needs an educational champion -- a concept that comes from a wealth of research suggesting that students are more likely to excel academically when they have adults instilling high expectations in them, making sure they’re doing homework, enrolling them in the correct classes, advocating for them to teachers, etc. FosterEd ensures that foster children in the program have at least one adult who has committed to act as that child’s champion. Without collaboration among the courts, child welfare agency, and school district, this key strategy would be impossible. “It’s hard for the educational champion to walk into a school and advocate on behalf of a child if they don’t have any legal status,” said Jesse. This is why the program relies on social workers in the child welfare agency to recommend who the educational champion should be, the courts to legally appoint the educational champion, and the schools to be willing to recognize the educational champion and his or her roles, rights, and responsibilities. All agencies have to be willing to work together across traditional boundaries to implement this new system. “It’s really the agencies themselves in partnership with us that are making the change,” said Jesse. “We have no leverage. … Most of what we’re asking these agencies to do, they are not legally obligated to do. … We’re not coming in and saying you need to do xyz because it’s the law. We’re coming in and saying do xyz because it’s good for kids.”

The second core strategy is forming an educational team of professionals to support the child, comprising the child’s social worker, teacher, dependency attorney, court appointed special advocate, etc. Here again, collaboration across agencies and sectors is crucial. Each team is empowered to share information and overcome obstacles to work together for the good of the child.

The key to implementing these strategies in Marion and elsewhere is building planning teams of cross-sector, cross-agency, on-the-ground stakeholders -- leaders who can overcome obstacles to collaboration and change the approach to supporting foster children in education. The buy in of local leaders community members is also essential. While FosterEd secures the necessary private and philanthropic funding and provides staff for a start up period to provide a proof of concept for their model, the goal is for the state to ultimately take the program over. “The idea is to really demonstrate for the agencies what this is going to look like when it’s their own program,” said Jesse. “We’re going to show them, not just tell them.”

In Indiana, by late 2011, FosterEd had worked with 44 foster children in Marion County and resolved 76 unmet educational needs, ranging from behavioral to attendance issues. Based on those early successes, Indiana created a publicly-funded, statewide FosterEd program in 2012, and the FosterEd staff there became employees of the Department of Child Services. By the end of that year, Indiana’s 17 Education Liaisons had worked directly with 748 foster children, identifying 1,536 unmet educational needs and resolving 89 percent of needs in closed cases. The program is now entirely state funded and operated and receives technical assistance from the FosterEd team. “The line of exactly whose employees are these doesn’t matter anymore. It’s just about doing the work of helping kids,” Jesse said.

Tools for Successful Collaboration

Jesse and the FosterEd program employed several key tactics that played a role in the program’s success.

Share a Vision of Success

Before deciding whether to bring the program to a new state, Jesse and his team perform a six-month investigative process, meeting with the state education agency, child welfare agency, and court system to ensure they are committed to improving the educational outcomes of foster youth through increased collaboration. “Are they committed to this issue? Are they willing to work with us on this project? And are they willing to work with each other? And, if the answer is yes, we commit to work in that state for three to five years,” Jesse said. This six-month process ensures that all participants understand FosterEd’s goals and are committed to achieving them. During initial meetings, participants discuss criteria for success and establish how each agency will contribute to the project. All participants must share the central goal of collaboratively creating a sustainable program that will improve the educational outcomes of foster children.

Establish a Governance Structure

Once FosterEd has commits to working with a state for three to five years, its work is guided by a state leadership team, the core members of which are the state education, child welfare, and judicial agencies. State leadership teams may also include representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, State Board of Education, Governor’s Office, legislature, and research community. As the Project Lead, FosterEd facilitates the work, while the state leadership team serves as an advisory board. FosterEd must ensure that each agency in the collaboration will perform pre-determined duties, such as asking social workers to identify foster children with educational difficulties. The state leadership team meets, on average, monthly for the first six months, then quarterly thereafter.

Commit to Information Sharing

FosterEd embraces a data-driven approach: Data is used for program planning, evaluation, and improvements to the program. FosterEd provides information to stakeholders on the ground, and helps school districts identify which children are in foster care. Working with Sundaram LLC, FosterEd developed an educational case management system, which allows education liaisons, social workers, and court staff to track the educational progress of each child. The system also allows for more effective program management, helping FosterEd to make programmatic decisions, such as adding more liaisons or increasing trainings on common challenges. It also enables FosterEd staff to determine if a change in education policy will provide a solution for a certain educational need. Sharing information is also essential to ensuring the educational progress of each child – a foster child’s “case” is only “closed” when all of his or educational goals have been monitored for a period of time and the issue at hand is resolved. This requires open communication between all participants.

FosterEd: Moving Forward

FosterEd launched a California pilot program in Santa Cruz County in early 2013, which as of 2014 served all existing child welfare cases in Santa Cruz County within the eligible population, with the exception of a few cases of students with no unmet educational needs. FosterEd has worked with the county child welfare agency, County Office of Education, and individual school districts to enable the program to be financially sustainable. “This is a prime illustration of FosterEd’s model, which ensures that local leadership and stakeholders collaborate at all phases of the project, from design, through implementation, to long-term sustainability,” FosterEd staff told us.

In early 2014, FosterEd launched another pilot program in Pima County, Arizona. Through the end of August 2014, 187 foster children had been served by the program. FosterEd is in the process of expanding its work into Los Angeles County, where nearly one third of California’s foster children are enrolled in school, and is exploring the possibility of establishing an education liaison program in New Mexico. Building on previous work in California, FosterEd will expand to Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to help facilitate educational teaming and planning for foster youth in Oakland schools. This pilot coincides with the implementation of California’s new Local Control Funding Formula – landmark legislation that holds school districts accountable for the educational outcomes of foster youth.

As the FosterEd program continues to grow, Jesse and his colleagues are bringing together new stakeholders who can address the education challenges of foster children, state by state. And with a program model that takes into consideration the tactics necessary to effectively collaborate across sectors, and one that clearly articulates the role of each agency and organization, FosterEd has ensured the scalability and sustainability of their work, which will continue to provide foster children with the support they need to overcome the educational obstacles they face at school.