Helping children and youth in the foster care system find educational stability

By Betsy Fordyce, Esq. and Trevor Williams

The Colorado Department of Human Services partners with the Colorado Judicial Department and the Court Improvement Program to present information at the annual Convening for Children, Youth and Families for judicial officers and best practice court teams. This blog post is the first in a series to share information presented at the 2017 Convening. The Convening session on educational stability was presented by Betsy Fordyce, Esq. and Trevor Williams. This session covered a range of current law and practice around school stability issues facing the youth we serve. Presenters moved beyond a recognition that school placement moves can negatively impact youth, and instead considered ways in which we can make school stability a priority. 

The elementary and high school years are full of key moments for psychosocial and cognitive development. Those educational opportunities are about so much more than the day-to-day coursework. Schools are places where children make friends, gain academic knowledge, develop a sense of hard work and self-confidence, and connect with extracurricular opportunities.

Children and youth in the foster care system, however, often do not have stability in their educational settings, and educational success is much more elusive than for their non-foster care peers. For example, in 2016, while Colorado’s graduation rate for the general student population was 78.9%, it was only 33.2% for youth who were experiencing foster care. Recent developments in federal and state law are pushing our systems to take a closer look at the challenges facing students in foster care. 

In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a federal law that requires school districts and child welfare agencies to work together to ensure more stable educational experiences for students in foster care. This includes a presumption that students should remain in their original schools, even if their living arrangements change, unless doing so would not be in their best interest. 

ESSA builds on the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, which first required states to consider school stability in making placement decisions. This was later reinforced and expanded with the 2011 Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act. The combination of these laws marks an increasing recognition that school mobility impacts educational achievement and well-being.

On December 10, 2015, when President Obama signed ESSA into law, states were given a year to design and implement the key provisions. Among other things, ESSA requires the following:

  • Local education and child welfare agencies must collaborate to create transportation plans so that students can stay in their schools of origin when it is in their best interest, school districts must designate a point of contact to assist with effective communication and collaboration with child welfare.
  • States must report annually on foster youth achievement and graduation rates.
  • When changes in educational placement are necessary, school districts must immediately enroll students in foster care in new schools, even without normally required records.

Colorado making progress to support educational success for all youth involved in the foster care system.

Colorado has been working hard to address these challenges for children and youth. Many of these efforts began in 2008 with the General Assembly’s passage of House Bill 08-1019 (codified in § 22-32-138, C.R.S.), which took steps to ease school transitions and minimize significant delays when school changes took place. The bill also attempted to equalize opportunities for children and youth in foster care by waiving fees for students in foster care to participate in school-sponsored extracurricular activities. 

Since 2008, Colorado has continued its work to improve the educational experiences and outcomes for students in foster care. These efforts have strengthened the partnership between the Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Child Welfare (DCW) and the Colorado Department of Education (CDE). 

Much of this work has been informed by a major research study lead by Dr. Elysia V. Clemens, associate professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Dr. Clemens’ work highlights the disparities of educational achievement for children and youth in foster care, and illuminates the negative impact that school mobility has on those outcomes. Focus groups conducted as a part of the research revealed that many students in foster care felt like school changes caused them to miss important material, which then only increased the difficulty of the work, leading many to give up on school and dropout altogether. These self reports were backed up by an analysis of the data. In addition to the statistics discussed above, students’ who experienced foster care in high school typically changed schools at least three times. With every school move the odds of graduating is lower. You can learn more about the research in this area through the reports and interactive data tools at HERE and by viewing the following educational video. 

This research has supported Colorado’s ESSA implementation and helped position Colorado as a national leader in this work. In 2017, the Colorado Department of Human Services adopted regulations on school stability, requiring county child welfare agencies to hold best interest determination meetings with school partners, the child welfare team and the family prior to a school change. During these meetings, participants evaluate factors related to the child’s needs (academic and non-academic), wishes and available educational services. County child welfare agencies and school districts are currently working to implement these requirements. 

Tackling one of the largest barriers to school stability - transportation.

Since the passage of ESSA, DCW and CDE have worked collaboratively to provide county agencies and school districts active, ongoing and meaningful support in order to build state and local partnerships for the benefit of students in foster care. Historically, one of the largest barriers to school stability has been transportation. Currently, regional convenings are bringing together school districts and agencies to brainstorm solutions around transportation and develop agreements as to how students in foster care will be transported to their school of origin after a change of placement. These convenings have already been held in the Metro Denver area, El Paso County and Weld County. An additional one will take place on the Western Slope on June 14, 2017.     

The Division of Child Welfare created several sample tools to aid in implementation of the school stability regulations and corresponding federal laws. The toolkit includes samples of the following:

  • Sample Agreement on School Stability  – An intergovernmental agreement for school districts and counties to agree on transportation plans and other school stability measures)
  • Notice to School District of Origin of Student in Out-of-Home Placement – A fill-in-able template letter from the county child welfare agency to the student’s school district of origin. This includes important notices as well as requests for situations when a student enters foster care or changes placements.
  • Notice to Receiving School District of Student in Out-of-Home Placement – A fill-in-able template letter from the county child welfare agency to the student’s new school district. This includes important notices as well as requests for situations when a student in foster care must change schools.

County child welfare agencies are encouraged to utilize these tools as-is or to modify them as needed to meet local needs. The tools are available at under educational success or click HERE to download the entire Child Welfare Educational Success Toolkit.

With collaboration at the state, county, and district levels, Colorado will continue to implement practices aimed at greater school stability so that students in foster care can attain improved educational outcomes.

About the Authors:
Betsy Fordyce, Esq. is the director of the youth empowerment and legal advocacy program at the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. In addition to her work in child welfare policy, she support a youth-led, peer-driven, grassroots group of current and former foster youth who are seeking to improve the foster care system through youth organizing, advocacy, education and leadership development.   
Trevor Williams is youth services administrator with the CDHS Division of Child Welfare. He is the subject matter expert at the Division of Child Welfare for older youth in foster care, supervises the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, the Education and Training Voucher Program, the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program and is the project director for Pathways to Success. 

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