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Helping Foster Children Make The Grade: NCYL Embarks On Research-Driven Education Reform

by Caroline Van Zile

5fd228bdc6The National Center for Youth Law has recently embarked on an ambitious education reform effort called the FosterEd Initiative to improve educational outcomes for foster youth.  To understand why educational reform is necessary in the context of foster care, consider the stories of the young people themselves:

Most days, Sofia sits in the back of her middle school classroom, napping or gossiping with friends. Although she is a prolific and perceptive writer on her own time, Sofia has failed to turn in most of her writing assignments this year. When teachers call home to offer assistance, no one answers the phone. Sophia’s mother, as it turns out, is on drugs and unable to properly care for her daughter, much less talk to teachers. Recently, however, Sofia has been staying with her grandmother, who has made some effort to help Sofia with her education. As a result, Sofia is paying attention in class and focusing on assignments. Unfortunately, the grandmother will not keep Sofia for long. No one knows what lies ahead for her. One thing seems certain: Amid this chaos, the majority of Sophia’s school year will be a waste.

One day in the middle of the school year, Jazmine suddenly appears in a seventh-grade classroom. None of the school’s teachers or administrators know what school she came from or where her records are. Jazmine doesn’t know if or when she will have to change schools again, and behaves as if she thinks schoolwork is a waste of time. She reads at a third- or fourth-grade level, but has the potential to do much better. She needs tutoring as well as support for what may be an emotional disturbance, yet no one knows whom to contact or how to help her.

Twelve-year-old Saffire starts the year off slowly. She is rambunctious, and sometimes falls asleep in class. But, unlike Sofia and Jazmine, Saffire clearly has help at home. When teachers call, an adult picks up the phone and listens. By the middle of the year, Saffire seems to think of school as a second home. She loves it. She applies to well-respected private and boarding schools; she will be salutatorian of her eighth-grade class.

All of these middle school girls are being supervised by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services in either kinship care or foster care. Traveling the path to foster care caused each of them to struggle in school. For Saffire, who had an excellent advocate in her foster mother, the transition was successful. For Sofia and Jazmine, the support wasn’t there, and they fell behind.

The FosterEd Initiative is designed to help youth like Jazmine and Sofia by pairing them with educational advocates and services to increase their school stability and improve their educational outcomes. The program also helps youth like Saffire by training foster parents and social workers to be informed advocates for children’s education rights.

This initiative is the latest and most ambitious in a recent wave of foster youth education reform. Reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s focused initially on acquiring research on foster youth’s educational outcomes and then on expanding legislative entitlements. This current crop of reforms (the so-called “third wave” of reforms) focuses on implementation. Some of these reforms, which are largely local, have concentrated on improving services through advocacy efforts, while others have used an intersystem collaborative approach. The FosterEd Initiative is unique in that it uses both advocacy and collaboration, and implements these reforms on a national scale.


Although some states, such as California, have long recognized the need for educational advocacy for foster youth, the reform movement has just begun on a national scale. The impetus for reform came from several studies published in the 1990s and early 2000s. Prior to these studies, decision makers in most states believed that the educational outcomes for foster youth were on par with those of most low-income youth. In reality, however, foster youth fare much worse. In 1997, Wendy Blome’s study on foster youth in education, “What Happens to Foster Kids,” delivered a jolt to the child and adolescent social work community. It announced that youth in foster care were more than twice as likely to drop out of high school than non-foster youth.  In addition, the study revealed that only 15 percent of foster youth were likely to be enrolled in college preparatory classes versus 32 percent of students not in foster care—even when the students had similar test scores and grades.  Something was holding foster youth back from succeeding in school.

A flurry of studies followed, confirming Blome’s findings. In 2004, Chapin Hall, the premier research and policy institute on urban youth in general and foster youth in particular, published two major studies: one on foster youth in the Chicago public schools and one on youth aging out of the foster system termed the “Midwest evaluation.”  Shortly thereafter, in 2005, Peter Pecora published his study on foster care alumni in the Northwest.  Methodologically rigorous with large sample sizes, each of these studies exposed the plight of foster youth in public schools. According to Chapin Hall’s Chicago study, these youth lacked school stability: More than two-thirds were switched out of their normal school shortly after placement in foster care.  These youth also lagged at least half a school year behind their peers, and half of them scored in the lowest quartile on basic skills assessments.  Foster youth in the Midwest study on average read at a seventh-grade level after completing 10th or 11th grade – and less than one in five of them received an “A” in English, math, history or science.  Disciplinary issues abounded. Two-thirds of youth in out-of-home care had been suspended and about one-sixth had been expelled at some time during their school careers.

The study of northwest alumni showed that this lack of educational success had major repercussions for youth after they aged out of the foster-care system. Less than 3 percent received a degree from a four-year college or university by age 25.  More than one in five reported experiencing homelessness after leaving foster care.  One-third lived at or below the poverty line; one-third had no health insurance; and 17 percent received cash public assistance.


Galvanized by this research, advocates and legislators took action. Studies pinpointed three major factors causing youth to struggle in schools: high rates of school mobility, a lack of collaboration among systems serving youth, and a lack of educational advocacy for youth in foster care.  School mobility became the most frequent target of legislation. Since 2001, the federal McKinney-Vento Act has helped homeless youth and youth awaiting foster care placement by entitling them to remain in their school of origin. Many states, including Delaware, have interpreted this entitlement broadly to include all or almost all of their foster youth in out-of-home care.  Other states have passed their own specific statutes permitting foster youth to remain in their school of origin: California passed AB 490 in 2003; Washington declared a similar state policy in 2003; and since 2004, Florida has required counties to enter into interagency agreements to minimize educational disruptions for foster youth.  In 2008, Congress passed the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act [hotlink to article about the Act], which stipulates that child welfare agencies must form “a plan for ensuring the educational stability of the child while in foster care.”  While vague, this entitlement, which takes effect in 2011, will apply to foster youth across the country.
Other laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, and Head Start legislation circa 2007, include provisions that affect foster youth.  Under the IDEA, for example, youth with absent parents must get a surrogate to advocate for them at their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings.  NCLB aims, in part, to improve educational services for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent or at risk, and Head Start deems foster youth categorically eligible for its early education services.

Third-Wave Reform

These entitlements assisted foster youth by giving them school stability and greater access to services. In the past decade, however, a third wave of foster youth education reform has begun. This wave builds on previous cycles of research and legislation. Much of it focuses on increasing collaboration among systems and strengthening foster youth advocacy – needs that, for the most part, were not otherwise addressed. Reformers hope that advocacy will help foster youth assert their rights under laws such as California’s AB 490 and the IDEA.

The FosterEd Initiative: Research-Driven Reform

NCYL’s FosterEd Initiative is on the cutting edge of this third wave of foster youth education reform. While other efforts have been implemented at state and county levels, FosterEd is the first national foster youth education initiative, with pilot sites in California and Indiana set to launch in early 2011. Its methods span the continuum from collaboration to advocacy, whereas most previous efforts focused their energy on one approach or the other. Spanning this continuum is difficult but necessary, because research shows that, for foster youth to thrive, the agencies serving them must both collaborate and be held accountable.

FosterEd, however, is not entirely unique; indeed, it exists largely because of the pioneering efforts of other foster youth education programs. Its approach is based on a combination of methods derived from other systems that use advocacy or collaboration to serve foster youth. Every step of the FosterEd process was carefully culled from its predecessors in the third wave of reforms, and its objectives are squarely in line with those of seminal programs such as Safe and Smart, Foster Youth Services, Project Achieve, and Treehouse’s Educational Advocacy services (each of these programs is discussed in more detail below). By adopting successful practices from other reform efforts, the FosterEd Initiative promises to increase educational outcomes for the foster youth it serves.


Foremost, FosterEd operates with a collaborative spirit. Ideally, advocacy is used only
when intersystem cooperative processes break down or stall. As it starts operations at each new site, the FosterEd takes a series of collaborative steps. It recruits local child welfare agencies, school districts, courts and nonprofits to work together.  FosterEd then works with these local players to craft an education advocacy plan, which is a braided procedure for identifying the unmet educational needs of foster youth and ensuring these young people receive appropriate educational supports and services. Social workers are trained to interact with the education system while school district-based liaisons facilitate communication with caseworkers. In this way, FosterEd encourages existing organizations to maximize their resources and clear the lines of communication.

These collaborative approaches, while combined in a novel way in FosterEd, are characteristic of several other third-wave reforms. For example, as early as 1999 the Vera Institute for Justice piloted its Safe and Smart program, where school-based specialists acted as liaisons between the education and child welfare systems. Specialists established themselves in several Bronx middle schools and offered unique academic and counseling services for foster youth and foster parents. With access to both academic and child welfare records, these specialists were able to combine knowledge and contacts from both systems. The program produced modest but real academic gains among the students it served, which were even stronger with tutoring.   During the program, the attendance of participants was quite high at 92 percent.  By training district-employed liaisons, FosterEd aims to deliver similar results.

FosterEd also builds on the work done by the Los Angeles Education Coordinating Council, which works to integrate the systems serving foster youth in Los Angeles County. The council consists of courts, child welfare agencies, school districts and local organizations serving foster youth. Established in 2004, the council fosters dialogue among participants and helps to set goals, responsibilities and action plans for each organization to better serve foster youth in schools. As a result, more foster youth are enrolled in early education programs, and more youth are graduating from high school on time.  In addition, more mentoring tutoring programs have opened for Los Angeles foster youth. Through its integration of local services, FosterEd hopes to replicate these results.


Occasionally, however, collaboration stalls and advocacy becomes necessary. FosterEd incorporates the successful components of programs like California’s Foster Youth Services (FYS) program, New York’s Project Achieve and Washington’s Treehouse service. When a child evinces an unmet educational need, social workers, foster parents, courts and school officials can call an intake line to receive help. FosterEd offers these stakeholders a variety of services. If the problem is merely a lack of information, FosterEd can offer technical assistance. If stakeholders need more extensive training or skills, FosterEd can refer them to a workshop run by FosterEd or its partners. However, if the problem is too complex or involves intricate legal work, FosterEd will assign the child to an educational case worker who will assess the child’s situation and refer the child to a specialized educational advocate.

FosterEd models its advocacy approach heavily on other landmark programs. For example, Washingon state’s Treehouse program, which has been available to all Washington foster youth since 2006, offers a similar array of services. Social workers, foster parents, courts and school officials can call an intake line to receive help with a child’s unmet educational needs.  Although they are not lawyers, Treehouse advocates will support the child directly in conflicts with the school or welfare agency if necessary. Treehouse also furnishes foster parents and social workers with trainings on their students’ education rights. As a result of Treehouses’s efforts, services to youth with special needs have improved dramatically, school stability has increased and rates of student discipline are lower among foster youth.  Although many of the youth served were at risk of being held back, 94 percent of the youth in the program were promoted to the next grade.

Project Achieve, which was run by Advocates for Children in New York City from 2002 to 2004, focused even more heavily on establishing an efficient continuum of services tailored to fit each child’s needs. The Project placed advocates within a small foster services agency in order to process referrals from the agency’s caseworkers and parents. Following the continuum, some referred cases would receive technical assistance, while others would be referred to a professional advocate. Project Achieve was able to successfully resolve issues in about 90 percent of its cases, and it improved school services, such as special education plans, for hundreds of youth.  Social workers slowly became more confident at handling education issues, and parents received an increased amount of training and information on navigating the school system.  By using a similar continuum, FosterEd hopes to be equally successful at efficiently resolving issues for a broad number of youth.

Foster Youth Services (FYS), an advocacy program run by the California Department of Education, works primarily to ease routine issues with record transfer, school enrollment and stability.  It also deals with more complex matters like discipline. FYS employees are available to foster youth in California schools and will advocate for youth who need help transitioning between schools or who require extra services such as tutoring. Advocates follow the progress of their youth to ensure they attend school, catch up with their peers who are not in foster care, and graduate. Data taken during the 2009-2010 school year show results:  Students who received advocacy through FYS experienced a 71 percent high school completion rate—a rate comparable to the general population and nearly 20 percent higher than their peers in the welfare system.  In addition, less than 1 percent faced expulsion, as compared to nearly 17 percent of the general foster youth population.  FYS youth in comprehensive school programs also achieved a 96 percent attendance rate.   By giving youth an education case worker and connecting them to service providers, FosterEd plans to similarly boost educational outcomes.


By combining two third-wave strategies, advocacy and collaboration, NYCL’s FosterEd Initiative aims to improve foster youth’s education outcomes significantly. Research shows that these strategies are necessary for foster youth’s success.  The two pilot sites in California and Indiana will allow FosterEd to help 4,500 youth in 2011 alone while FosterEd collects data and reflects on the efficacy of the practices used. In 2012, other states and counties will be able to benefit from these progressive reforms as NYCL both disseminates the  results and searches for new operating locations. In the end, students like Sofia, Jazmine, and Saffire will finally receive the services to which they are entitled. The FosterEd Initiative, building on the lessons learned by other landmark reforms, will help them beat the odds.

Caroline Van Zile was a 2010 Summer law clerk at NCYL, working with attorney Jesse Hahnel to launch the FosterEd Intiative. She is in her second year at Yale Law School.

  1. Wendy Blome, What Happens to Foster Kids: Educational Experiences of a Random Sample of Foster Care Youth and a Matched Group of Foster Care Youth, Child & Adolescent Soc. Work J., Feb. 1997, at 45, 47.
  2. Id. at 47.
  3. Cheryl Smithgall et al., Educational Experiences of Children in Out-of-Home Care (2004); Courtney, Mark E. Courtney, Sherri Terao & Noel Bost, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Conditions of Youth Preparing to Leave State Care (2004).
  4. Peter J. Pecora et al., Assessing the Effects of Foster Care: Early Results from the Casey National Alumni Study (2003).
  5. Smithgall et al., supra note 3, at 46.
  6. Id. at 14, 17.
  7. Courtney et al., supra note 3, at 43, 45.
  8. Pecora et al., supra note 4, 36.
  9. Id. at 23.
  10. Id. at 27.
  11. See Casey Family Programs, Breakthrough Series Collaborative: Improving Educational Continuity and School Stability for Children in Out-of-Home Care (2009).
  12. Del. Code Ann. tit. 14, § 202(c) (2007).
  13. Cal. Educ. Code 48853.5(d)(1) (2010); 2002 Wash. Laws, SB 6709, ch. 326; 2003 Wash. Laws, HB 1058, ch. 112.; Fla. State. Ann.. §  39.0016 (West 2009)
  14. 42 USCA § 675(1)(G) (West 2010)
  15. 20 U.S.C. § 7908 et. seq.; 20 U.S.C. § 1435 et. seq.; 42 U.S.C. § 9801 et seq.
  16. 34 C.F.R. § 300.519(a) (2006); see also 42 U.S.C. 11434a(6) (2006).
  17. No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, tit. I, pt. D; 42 U.S.C. § 9801 et seq.
  18. See Casey Family Programs, supra note 11
  19. National Center for Youth Law, New Initiative Seeks to Ensure Foster Youth Receive the Educational Advocacy and Opportunities They Need to Succeed
  20. Rebekah Gleason Hope, Foster Children and the IDEA: The Fox No Longer Guarding the Henhouse? 69 LA. L. REV. 349, 385 (2009).
  21. Id.
  22. Education Coordinating Council’s Accomplishments During Its First Five Years: 2005–2010, (last visited 25 Aug. 2010).
  23. See National Center For Youth Law, supra note 19.
  24. Treehouse Educational Advocacy Program Year End Report 2008-2009, 8, 10-11, 12 (on file with author).
  25. Id. at 14.
  26. Advocates for Children of New York, Advocates for Children’s Project Achieve: A Model Project Providing Education Advocacy for Children in the Child Welfare System, 6 (2005).
  27. Id. at 37.
  28. Foster Youth Services Program, Counseling, Student Support, and Service-Learning Office, California Department of Education, 2010 Report to the Legislature and the Governor for the Foster Youth Services Program, 11 (15 July 2010), available at
  29. Id. at 12.
  30. Id. at 13.
  31. See Casey Family Programs, supra note 11.