FosterEd Arizona improving supports for youth in foster care through listening tour and policy recommendations
All children need and deserve support and humanity as they navigate the many challenges they face in school and life. These challenges are compounded for young people experiencing foster care, a group that too often goes undersupported and overlooked in classrooms and communities.
FosterEd Arizona, a network of advocates who partner directly with young people in foster care, is looking to change this dynamic by spearheading fresh initiatives — through partnerships with school districts and other civic leaders and organizations — aimed at improving the experiences of youth in foster care by bridging gaps and building compassion.
Foster Ed Arizona partners with state and local leaders
FosterEd Arizona, a compassionate education systems initiative of the National Center for Youth Law, supports young people experiencing foster care with their education needs. In addition to direct work with youth, FosterEd team members facilitate trainings for community advocates, including educators, and work with decision-makers to ensure youth have a voice in discussions affecting them. Recently, the team bolstered these efforts with the launch of a popular listening tour — through Maricopa and Pima counties — aimed at improving communication between advocates and school liaisons, and also made key policy recommendations to state and local education leaders.
All of the efforts are driven by a desire to improve the experiences and outcomes of youth who are affected by foster care. Education is often the last thing to get addressed when a student is in foster care, which can lead to their academic progress falling out of focus, according to studies.
"Young people experiencing foster care are a community of individuals with unique needs who deserve the time, attention, and resources devoted to them to meet those needs and support their educational journeys," said Ashely Dickerson, a FosterEd Arizona senior program manager in Maricopa County.
"We as compassionate and caring adults must recognize that advocacy for this community of young people should look different than advocacy efforts alongside other groups of individuals,” she added, “and our systems must change and become more compassionate in order to truly support them."
Listening to needs of youth
It was during meetings with school district foster care liaisons that FosterEd advocates began to realize the existing gap between the two groups, said Jennie Hedges, a FosterEd Arizona senior program manager in Pima County.
"We often found ourselves in meetings together where we sometimes were advocating for education services without having the time and space to really dive into the ‘why,'" she said. "I recognized that, personally, I had some learning to do when it came to the question of what school districts really have to go through when they step into a supportive role for youth in care. I knew a lot about the department of child safety’s side of things and even the foster parent side, but not the district’s."
From there, she began asking district liaisons throughout Pima County if they'd be willing to meet for a conversation. "I promised to just listen and learn," Hedges said.
The meetings were found to be incredibly helpful and often went past their allotted times. The growing conversations became so productive that they are now held bi-monthly.
"Our teams continue to do a lot of listening and learning about what the liaisons are experiencing, the barriers to support within the education systems they operate in, and we try to leave each conversation with a shared understanding," said Dickerson, who is canvassing Maricopa County. "This has led to deeper connections, more trust and camaraderie. All of that, in the end, supports young people because the adults who surround them are able to focus on their needs rather than any misunderstandings that may exist. We're all understanding of each other."
Building more support for youth in foster care
FosterEd Arizona is affecting change beyond the listening sessions.
In 2022, the team presented to the Arizona School Boards Association, an audience that included school board members, superintendents and other executive-level school staff from across the state. The team presented a district checklist it created to help school districts reflect on, and in some cases re-envision, policies and practices that impact students experiencing foster care.
Additionally, in 2020 the team co-published, in partnership with Fostering Advocates Arizona, a Foster Care Education Toolkit designed to assist adult supporters and allies. The toolkit focuses on guaranteeing an education, improving and supporting school stability, identifying special needs, creating the appropriate school environment, and achieving success beyond graduation.
FosterEd Arizona also continues to offer trainings focused on:
- FosterEd Programmatic Overview (who we are, what we do, how to engage with our program in service to youth);
- Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) 101 and the Best Interest Determination Process; and
- Special Education for youth in foster care.
"We recognize the ripple effect these trainings start," Dickerson said, "because everyone who attends a training in which we discuss best practices for supporting youth will go out into the world and hopefully do better by young people."