No Foster Child Left Behind

Research consistently suggests that childhood trauma, placement instability and a myriad other factors leave many students in foster care far behind their peers in almost all academic measures.
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Momentous developments for a national movement bent on improving educational outcomes for all students, starting with those in foster care.

This week the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will commence the long-awaited overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known as No Child Left Behind. Media coverage has already latched onto buzzwords like "continuous improvement," codification of "Race to the Top" and "college-and-career readiness" standards.

But somewhere amidst the attention grabbing banner headlines is an amendment to ESEA of monumental importance to one group of vulnerable students, those in foster care.

This blog post will not only explain the context and importance of this development, but will also serve as your portal into a much deeper and enlivened conversation than 1,000-words will allow me. On October 19th, as Congress begins to publicly grapple with education reform, my project, Fostering Media Connections, in partnership with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, will host a "National Conversation" on the intersection of foster care and education, featuring teachers and students in California, researchers in Illinois and policymakers in Washington D.C. all beamed live to our website, those of partners and right here on the Huffington Post. But, more about that later, now let's take a look at how the stage has been set.

Research consistently suggests that childhood trauma, placement instability and a myriad other factors leave many students in foster care far behind their peers in almost all academic measures. The vast majority of children in foster care, 67 percent, are school aged, according to a factsheet compiled by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education. Studies consistently show that these students experience higher mobility than their peers and as a result, keeping up in school can be a challenge for many youth in care. Experience also shows that school can be a place where foster youth can excel. In the oft-turbulent world of foster care, the right school is that place where, for seven hours a day, the world has a chance at being stable.

Despite schools' integral role in not only the academic but overall success of foster youth, federal K-12 education policy has only made mention of the educational needs of foster youth in the context of broad programs intended for larger groups of vulnerable students, such as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Head Start and the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Instead, the complicated task of ensuring educational opportunity for foster children has fallen squarely on state departments of child welfare, not education.

But that all could change, with the expected introduction of Senator Al Franken's (D-MN) "Fostering Success in Education Amendment" this week.

Under the landmark Fostering Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, child welfare administrators are compelled to maintain a child in their school of origin whenever it is in his or her best interest, transfer records swiftly if a school move is deemed necessary and ensure that children are re-enrolled quickly in an effort to stem lost credits and long periods of non-enrollment.

This mandate has been challenging to implement because no matter how well-intentioned schools are, unless there is state-level legislation, top-down guidance or strong school-level leadership there is nothing compelling educational agencies to adhere to the educational goals set by child welfare agencies. In an effort to increase collaboration between schools and the foster care system, the Administration for Children, Youth and Families and the Department of Education released a joint letter in August announcing that they were co-hosting a conference in early November wherein, "State teams composed of members from the State's child welfare, education and court systems will create a State Plan for cross-collaboration after the conference."

Sen. Franken's Fostering Success in Education Amendment would build on this movement towards inter-agency collaboration around children, with mandates on state departments of education that largely mirror those currently existing for child welfare administrations under Fostering Connections; namely, retaining children in their school of origin when in their best interest, rapid transfer of records and swift enrollment when a school move occurs. The amendment would further codify collaboration between state child welfare agencies and educational agencies by compelling their cooperation in transporting students in foster care to and from their school of best interest.

Seen in the context of recent reforms to child welfare, heightened administrative collaboration between the ACYF and DOE and state-level focus on the education of foster youth, the Fostering Success in Education Amendment is a notable and important step in the steady march towards the improved educational well-being of students in foster care.

This moment marks a very large opportunity not only for foster youth, but for all vulnerable students -- and it is this opportunity that we intend to explore on Wednesday at noon Pacific Time.

Concurrent to the "National Conversation" on the 19th, CCAI and FMC will release an "Action Guide" for everyday citizens, policy makers, teachers, journalists, advocates and everyone who makes up the constellation of people who care about children. The "Action Guide" aims to give all of us the implements to support the education of children in foster care and is driven by a reasonably radical idea:

The hypothesis stands as such: if it is reasonable to expect that students in foster care -- students who face some of the gravest challenges and experience some of the worst outcomes -- can do better, is it not reasonable to suggest that the same is possible for all students? In as much, the seemingly radical goal of driving major educational reform becomes entirely reasonable as well. Foster care is simply a logical place to start.

So let's get started.

Join Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), Acting Assistant Secretary to the Administration and Children and Families George Sheldon, Research Fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago Cheryl Smithgall, Foster Youth Carey Sommer, Educator Mike Jones, Educational Mentor Jetaine Hart and a group of outstanding CCAI Foster Youth Interns for this "National Conversation" and seriously consider joining a constellation already burning bright for children in need.

- Daniel Heimpel is the director of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), a project of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. FMC harnesses the power of journalism and media to drive public and political will behind policy and practice that improve the well-being of children in foster care.

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