Bay Area residents and all Californians should take the opportunity to focus our attention on the needs of some of the most vulnerable among us — our foster youth.
Our responsibility to the over 60,000 youth in the California foster care system and 6,000 foster youth in the Bay Area, cannot be overstated. Not only do they face the day-to-day challenges of children living in more traditional circumstances, foster youth also confront a myriad of stressors that impact their ability to thrive in the very setting we rely on to support their safety, stability and development—our schools.
The nature of California’s educational funding has changed dramatically in recent years, moving control away from the state and closer to local school districts where decisions about program design and implementation can be tailored to the community’s individualized needs.
This shift marked a significant change in the autonomy and control of each school district, but was asserted with one important caveat: districts would be held accountable to the public for the educational outcomes in their schools. One of the most significant and positive implications of this change was the impact on foster youth, a group previously overlooked in California’s education system.
The regulations now require districts to be accountable for the educational outcomes of the state’s most vulnerable children. This should have been unremarkable; indeed, one might assume that school districts track, monitor and report the educational outcomes for all youth in their schools, including foster youth. Unfortunately, many districts could neither identify the foster youth in their schools, nor report their educational outcomes.
The decision to track the outcomes of foster youth came about after a landmark study by the Stuart Foundation, which found that foster youth were the single most disadvantaged study-group. Graduation rates were abysmal, hovering at 45 percent, and the academic achievement of foster youth was astonishingly poor. It became clear that California had failed to provide for one of the primary parental responsibilities of its foster youth — their education.
While it is easy to place blame with school districts, foster homes, or county social service departments, the simple fact remains, this is a whole-system failure. Recognizing the importance of remediating the educational needs of the children we are responsible to parent, the revised regulations communicated a powerful statement by simply requiring school districts to track their outcomes.
Tracking and monitoring outcomes itself, however, is not enough. Foster youth are affected not only by the educational system, but by the profound impact of the abuse and/or neglect that initially resulted in their entry into the foster care system.
The state needs a solution that does not segregate foster youth from the broader community, but instead facilitates opportunities for schools and communities to embrace them. Assembly Bill 741 and Assembly Bill 1025 are two important examples that help generate a solution.
Independently, each supports critical and unmet needs of all youth, including foster children. Together, they begin to fill significant gaps in our educational and social systems by creating comprehensive stabilization services for youth experiencing acute mental health crises and implementing integrated and inclusive, whole-school reform efforts.
Both bills have found wide-sweeping support across disciplines, departments, funders and consumer groups, not only because there is consensus of the needs of our foster youth, but more importantly, because these needs are not new and there is agreement that significant reform and attention to them is needed now.
With a system finally prepared to act, it is our responsibility to take the courageous step toward delivering on the promise to support our schools with policies and processes that ensure that foster youth can succeed.
Ken Berrick is Chief Executive Officer of Seneca Family of Agencies (www.senecafoa.org) based in Oakland. He is co-author of the book, Unconditional Care: Relationship-Based, Behavioral Intervention with Vulnerable Children and Families.