High school suspensions, multiple schools affect foster youth as they enter college

NextUP / California Community CollegesGabriela Vaquerano, a former foster youth and participant in the NextUP program. NextUP / California Community CollegesGabriela Vaquerano, a former foster youth and participant in the NextUP program. California foster students who were suspended from school or attended multiple high schools are more likely to struggle in college, according to a new report that examines the academic transition these students undergo.
The report released Wednesday, from Educational Results Partnership, a nonprofit research organization, and California College Pathways, a statewide organization that helps foster youth succeed in college, finds these students had lower grade point averages than their peers because of barriers they faced in high school. However, foster youth who had access to financial aid, clear educational plans and counseling services in college had higher GPAs and earned more course credits than foster youth who didn’t. The findings echo the impacts on low-income, black or Latino students who transfer schools multiple times and are suspended. In California, the majority of foster youth are black, Latino and low-income.
The data suggests educators should consider the impact of multiple high school transfers on foster students or removing them from school for a behavior problem, Ed Results researchers say. 
“Adults need to pay attention to the impact of these decisions,” said James Lanich, Ed Results president and chief executive officer. “If you move the student or transfer them many times, it affects their downstream success.”
Thousands of foster youth in the K-12 system are removed from their homes and placed in state care because of parental neglect, abuse or exploitation. These children routinely perform poorly on state academic exams, have low graduation rates and high chronic absenteeism and suspension rates. Because of their unique status, the Local Control Funding Formula, which the Legislature passed in 2013, provides additional money for school districts to spend on foster youth, along with English learners, homeless children and low-income students.
But foster youth advocates have complained that few districts have documented if and how they are providing the additional and improved services, such as transportation to and from school, that the law requires. Providing transportation would limit the number of school transfers these students experience when their home placement has changed.
Earlier this month, the State Board of Education updated instructions for the 2020-21 Local Control and Accountability Plans, which are spending plans districts are required to submit under the funding formula. The new instructions encourage school districts to provide specific actions in their plans to meet the needs of foster students.
Foster youth in California K-12 schools, compared to their peers, face barriers that can hinder their academic success. For example, they have lower attendance rates than non-foster students. More than a quarter of foster students in the state were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the school year or approximately 18 days, in 2017-18, according to the California Department of Education. Just over 14 percent of foster youth were suspended at least once from school in 2018-19 compared to 3.4 percent of students not in the foster care system. Foster youth on average attend 2.55 high schools between 9th and 12th grade compared to 1.25 high schools by their peers, according to the report.
RelatedQuick Guide: Students in foster care“Each move to a new high school requires students to adjust to a new environment, resulting in higher levels of stress and a sense of displacement due to disruptions in academic, family, peer and other important domains among youth,” according to the report.
The findings are similar to low academic performance outcomes found among many low-income students, students with special needs and black or Latino students who historically have been disenfranchised or discriminated against based on their status, Lanich said.
Once high school ends, and even before they enroll in their first college class, it’s vital to help these students navigate what can be a complicated early college experience by helping them acquire textbooks or navigate financial aid forms, said Debbie Raucher, director of education for John Burton Advocates for Youth, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for homeless and foster youth in the state.
“The impact of these experiences don’t end at graduation as they transition to community college,” Raucher said. “We do know that the period of time when a youth exits high school and hasn’t transitioned to college is a crucial point.”
There isn’t a system identified to support that young person at that time, she said. They’re out of high school, and while support exists at some colleges to help before they enroll, many foster students don’t know about it, she said.
The high school graduation rate for foster students is 59 percent, compared to 83 percent for all California students in 2017-18, according to the education department. But more foster students applied to one of the state’s 114 community colleges — 85 percent compared to 76 percent for all students. Only 50 percent of foster youth who applied eventually enrolled compared to 56 percent of non-foster students who applied, according to the report.
But the report also confirms that much of the work happening to improve foster youth outcomes in community colleges is working, Raucher said.
For example, foster youth who received a federal Pell Grant, which awards about $6,000 in financial aid, had higher GPAs and took more college courses. Students also performed better academically if they participated in programs like NextUp, which provides financial support, special advising and housing assistance. It’s offered at 45 of the state’s community colleges.
“This report tells us we’re on the right track,” Raucher said. “We’re not just taking the best guess.”
The report recommends reducing high school mobility by encouraging school districts and child welfare agencies to work together to limit the number of times foster students are transferred. It also recommends training teachers to help them better support foster youth who have experienced trauma when they are removed from their home or parents. That training would help limit the number of suspensions and expulsions, the report says. K-12 districts also need more dedicated funding for foster youth — meaning not combining it with money for other student groups under the funding formula — and better accountability to make sure it’s being spent on these students.
Policies and procedures around expulsions, transferring schools or access to Advanced Placement courses ultimately affect student success, he said.
“We used to think high school success and college success was due to preparation and that it was all in the hands of the learner and the teacher,” Lanich said. “Now, we know that’s not so much the case.”
“Foster youth are lagging behind their peers so there is still work to be done,” Raucher said. “But what’s exciting is … foster youth with an education plan, foster youth receiving counseling or advisement services, a Pell Grant or a student support grant … they found a positive impact on GPA and unit completion.”
John Fensterwald contributed to this report.
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