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NCYL’s New Juvenile Justice-FosterEd Program Focuses On Improving Education Outcomes for Probation-Supervised Youth

YLN Juvenile Justice/FosterEd image [1]by Atasi Uppal

Probation-Supervised Youth Need Greater Educational Support

It is an accepted truth that education is the great equalizer on the path toward the American Dream. Our society believes that by pursuing and completing a high school education, any young person can move toward financial stability and job security. For many of this country’s children, however, there are tremendous barriers to getting and staying on that path to success.

Certain groups of children, including youth of color, youth with special education needs and foster youth, face significant obstacles to achieving any measure of educational success. These barriers include but are not limited to: implicit and explicit racial bias, placement mobility, gaps in school enrollment, inappropriate school placement, lack of special education and/or mental health services, and a general failure of communication between adults working with these youth. Any one of these barriers could lead to a youth missing out on class instruction for days or months, causing her to fall behind in academic performance. Even worse, years of facing multiple barriers to educational success could result in a youth being funneled into the “school-to-prison pipeline.”1 [2]

For decades, the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) has worked to strengthen the public systems that serve foster children, including the systems charged with ensuring they succeed in school. Building on this legacy, NCYL launched FosterEd, a foster youth education initiative, in 2009. FosterEd combines legislative and system reform to work toward eliminating the barriers to educational success faced by students in foster care.

In the past year, NCYL has expanded the FosterEd model to address another population with significant needs: youth in the juvenile justice system. In the United States, the juvenile justice system is more likely to have contact with a youth if the youth is poor2 [3], from a single-parent household3 [4], has special education needs4 [5] and is a youth of color.5 [6] These justice-involved youth6 [7] face tragically bad education outcomes, similar to those documented for foster youth. For example, involvement with the justice system quadruples a student’s likelihood of dropping out of school.7 [8] Of justice-involved youth that do stay in school, it has been shown that approximately 50 percent of those youth perform below grade level.8 [9]

Looking at the subset of justice-involved youth who are probation-supervised, recent California studies indicate that those youth similarly face poor education outcomes. Probation-supervised youth in Los Angeles County who were in grades 9-12 had an average reading score at the fifth-grade level.9 [10] Additionally only 26 percent of probation-supervised youth passed the English Language Arts high school exit exam, compared to 70 percent of the general population. 10 [11]

Finally, the population of justice-involved youth termed “crossover youth” – youth who have involvement with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems – also face serious obstacles. A study of crossover youth in Arizona indicated that 67 percent of those youth were chronically truant.11 [12] Almost two-thirds of the youth performed at least one year below grade level.12 [13] A California study demonstrated that two-thirds of crossover youth changed schools at least once during the school year, while one-third of the youth changed schools three or more times.13 [14]

While there is debate about whether contact with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems is the cause of education obstacles, the effect of other system failures, or both, it is clear that youth in those systems are not currently receiving the support they need to succeed in school. In recognition of this high level of need, FosterEd is expanding its target population to address the education outcomes of probation-supervised youth. NCYL is approaching this new area of system reform by melding existing FosterEd strategies with those of NCYL’s Juvenile Justice team. Through the development of three different program adaptations in three states, working alongside probation agencies, child welfare agencies, the judiciary, legal service providers, school districts and community service organizations, FosterEd will try to provide the level of support these youth need to share in the dream of bettering their lives through educational achievement.

The FosterEd Program Model

FosterEd has traditionally focused on intensive implementation of its education advocacy model which can be adapted to complement the services and supports already in place in a particular jurisdiction. When beginning reform work in a state, FosterEd partners with local agencies to create county-based demonstration sites. Demonstration site staff implement a model with three evidence-based components: (1) “Education Champions” – parents, relatives, or volunteers committed to supporting the youth’s education who can support a student’s long-term success, (2) proactive education case planning, and (3) education support teams comprised of the adults involved in each student’s education. FosterEd demonstration site staff, called “education liaisons,” build structures of support for foster youth using these three components to varying degrees, depending on the unique needs and capacity of the demonstration site. Education liaisons also mentor Education Champions on an ongoing basis and track case plan progress over the life of the youth’s dependency case.


FosterEd Model graphic [15]



Adults and youth engaged in these systems of support have access to resources developed by FosterEd and its partners, such as county-specific Mentoring Modules for education liaisons, instruction guides for Education Champions, and web-based case planning software.

FosterEd’s mission has been to use evidence of success from these demonstration sites, in addition to statewide policy work, to drive statewide systems change in the area of foster youth education. Further, in the state of Indiana and in Santa Cruz County, California, FosterEd demonstration sites have transitioned into public agency programs. FosterEd’s demonstration site and policy efforts on behalf of foster youth in multiple counties in California, Arizona, and New Mexico are ongoing.

In recent years, FosterEd has developed additional partnerships with school districts and county agencies that do not rise to the level of fully staffed demonstration sites, but instead involve a combination of technical assistance, program design, and program evaluation support. Such partnerships are in place in Oakland Unified School District, San Francisco Unified School District, and Los Angeles County.

The FosterEd-Juvenile Justice Partnership at NCYL

The decision to widen FosterEd’s focus to include reforming systems responsible for the education of probation-supervised youth reflects central goals of both NCYL’s education and juvenile justice work.

FosterEd’s model is based on a strong belief that the education of system-involved youth is the responsibility of the state actors who care for them. Thus, the appalling educational outcomes of probation-supervised youth can and must be remedied by government agencies, such as probation agencies, the judiciary, and local school districts. The Juvenile Justice team at NCYL has a similar focus on state and federal responsibility for youth. Using litigation and system reform efforts, the Juvenile Justice team works toward disrupting three major problem areas related to the juvenile justice system: (1) the school-to-prison pipeline, (2) the practice of transferring youth to adult court, and (3) the pervasive effect of racial disparities in education and justice systems, particularly the impact of implicit bias on decision-makers.

The new FosterEd-Juvenile Justice partnership to improve education outcomes for probation-supervised youth ties in strongly with the Juvenile Justice team’s work targeting the school-to-prison pipeline. By improving family, court, and state agency collaboration and training around education for probation-supervised youth, NCYL aims to heighten the focus on education when thinking about how to address this population and decrease the perceived need for incarceration. The hope is that this work will ultimately result in appropriate implementation of special education services for youth, fewer arrests of youth in schools, better-quality transitions for youth from court schools to schools in the community, and an improved understanding by all involved adults that justice-involved youth benefit far more from services than from punishment. Additionally, by implementing this new program in jurisdictions that largely serve youth of color, NCYL aims to reduce the disproportionate impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on students of color.

FosterEd is currently implementing programs for probation-supervised youth at three sites, in partnership with local and state agencies. At each site, FosterEd provides a combination of technical assistance, program design and program evaluation support.

Santa Clara County, California

In Santa Clara County, NCYL is partnering with the juvenile court, a local volunteer organization, and a legal services provider to design and implement an “Education Champion Program.” The goal of the program is to improve outcomes for probation-supervised youth by using volunteer “Family Education Mentors” to train Education Champions (parents or relatives of a court-involved youth) on pathways to education success. The legal services provider will coordinate each youth’s education success plan using web-based technology and will regularly scheduled individual and group trainings with Family Education Mentors.

This program will be piloted within a specialty court serving youth with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse diagnoses. If successful, the program will expand to serve additional probation-supervised youth outside of the specialty court. To date, NCYL has provided technical assistance on program design and evaluation, adapted FosterEd training resources including tailored mentoring modules, and created specific goals for education success plans that are relevant to this unique population of students. The Education Champion Program will enter the implementation phase in the next six months.

Maricopa County, Arizona

Over the past three months, NCYL has been meeting with agencies and other stakeholders in Maricopa County’s Crossover Youth Project to determine how to design a program to improve education outcomes for dual-status youth (youth are subject to both child welfare and delinquency petitions). As previously mentioned, these youth face abysmal education outcomes. To date, NCYL has provided technical assistance to county partners around information sharing, case processing, and case planning, with an eye toward issues relevant to youth education. During the next six months, NCYL hopes to integrate FosterEd’s collaborative strategies and training resources into the Crossover Youth Project protocols. NCYL’s ultimate goal is that specific Crossover Youth Project partners will be equipped to implement effective practices for improving education outcomes for dual-status youth in a sustainable manner.

Lea County, New Mexico 

FosterEd has been invited by the New Mexico child welfare agency to create a demonstration site in the state. Recently, the FosterEd New Mexico State Leadership Team selected Lea County as the location of the site. In addition to the FosterEd New Mexico Director, FosterEd will staff this site with at least two Education Liaisons who will work directly with youth and the adults involved in their education.

In Lea County, FosterEd will utilize its conventional model of intensive implementation through demonstration site work, but will serve probation-supervised youth in addition to foster youth. FosterEd training resources for Educational Champions and site staff will be adapted to fit the needs of youth on probation in New Mexico. By expanding the demonstration site model to also assist probation-supervised youth, FosterEd will investigate whether demonstration site staff can produce the same positive outcomes for these youth that they have facilitated for foster youth in Indiana, California, and Arizona.

NCYL is excited to pursue improved education outcomes for probation-supervised youth in Arizona, California, and New Mexico. By expanding the FosterEd model to meet the needs of juvenile justice-involved youth, NCYL intends to build the capacity of school districts, public agencies, the courts, and community partners so they are better able to support these underserved youth. It is our collective responsibility as a community to eliminate barriers to education for all youth under the supervision of state agencies so that those youth truly have equal access to a lifetime of opportunity.

1 [16] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has described the school-to-prison pipeline as “the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” See What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline? [17] www.aclu.org [18].

2 [19] Sickmund, Melissa, and Puzzanchera, Charles (eds.), National Center for Juvenile Justice. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report.

3 [20] See id.

4 [21] Burrell, Sue and Warboys, Loren, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (July 2000). Special Education and the Juvenile Justice System, available at http://criminology.fsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/OJJDP-Special-Education-and-the-Juvenile-Justice-Field-2000.pdf.

5 [22] Rovner, Joshua, The Sentencing Project (2014). Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Juvenile Justice System, 1-2, available at http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/jj_Disproportionate%20Minority%20Contact.pdf.

6 [23] In this article, I use the term “justice-involved youth” to encompass youth who are involved with the juvenile justice system at any stage, e.g. arrest, arraignment, adjudication, incarceration, probation supervision, etc. I use the term “probation-supervised youth” to refer specifically to youth who are supervised by a juvenile probation officer and reside in the community.

7 [24] Sweeten, G. (2006). Who will graduate? Disruption of High School Education by Arrest and Court Involvement. Justice Quarterly 23(4), 473.

8 [25] Meltzer, L.J., Levine, M.D., Karniski, W., Palfrey, J.S., & Clarke, S. (1984). An analysis of the learning styles of adolescent delinquents. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 17, 600–608.

9 [26] Los Angeles County Office of Education (2002). Juvenile Court and Community Schools, School Accountability Report Card, 2001-2002. Downey, CA: author.

10 [27] Education Coordinating Council (2006). Educational status of probation youth enrolled in Los Angeles County Office of Education programs, 4.

11 [28] Halemba, G.J., Siegel, G.C., Lord, R.D., & Zawacki, S. (2004). Arizona Dual Jurisdiction Study: Final Report. National Center for Juvenile Justice, 42.

12 [29] See id.

13 [30] Wiegmann, W. et al. (2014). The Invisible Achievement Gap, Part Two. The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, 87.