Magazine article District Administration

FOSTERING SUCCESS: How Districts Work to Ensure That Students in Foster Care Thrive along with Their Classmates

Magazine article District Administration

FOSTERING SUCCESS: How Districts Work to Ensure That Students in Foster Care Thrive along with Their Classmates

Article excerpt

When Tiffany Anderson took over as superintendent of Jennings School District near St. Louis in 2012, she faced high poverty and low academic achievement. As part of the turnaround effort, she focused on building supports for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly those in foster care who struggle with social-emotional trauma and frequent changes in residence.

With assistance from community partners, Anderson renovated a dilapidated, district-owned house and turned it into a permanent group home for students in foster care.

Christened Hope House, the 3,000-square-foot home is managed by a full-time, licensed foster counselor. Up to seven students of both genders, who range in age from 5 to 17, are selected by the superintendent and house parent to live in private rooms there, receiving regular meals and experiencing a greater sense of stability. Students stay for one to two school years, on average.

The renovation required an initial $50,000 investment from the district. The programs success has since inspired more than $80,000 in sustaining donations from the community. Thanks to this and similar efforts targeting at-risk students, the district moved from a Missouri school assessment score of 57 percent in 2012 to 81 percent four years later.

"We have the opportunity to remove barriers in amazing ways if we change our mindset," says Anderson, who is now superintendent of Topeka Public Schools in Kansas.

Most school districts have not marshaled the resources to build and operate such a facility. Instead, other approaches have been implemented to support students in foster care, ranging from raising awareness and providing PD, to creating special programs and adding specialized staff.

Kansas 'can-do'

Students in foster care face huge challenges. According to the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, only about 60 percent graduate high school by age 19; they miss an average of five weeks of school annually; and most have faced trauma. Many also require special education services.

Anderson found many of the same foster care challenges two years ago when she took over in Topeka, a 32-school district with approximately 300 students in foster care.

She first organized three-person mental health intervention teams that are deployed across the district. Each team consists of a school liaison (a district employee who is a licensed clinical social worker), a mental health agency clinician, and a care coordinator who assists with family outreach. The liaison--the bridge between the district and social services--reviews student intervention plans, tracks grades and coordinates mental health care.

A representative from every school also begins visiting foster homes during the first week of school, and new teachers tour the community to become familiar with areas that have a high concentration of students in foster care.

"There's no substitute for developing personal relationships," says Anderson. "We really focus on creating a sense of belonging in the classroom and in the school community."

The district also provides PD that covers topics such as how to become a licensed foster parent because there is a shortage of foster homes in the district. "Schools have staff development programs for curriculum materials, CPR and everything else, so why not this?" says Anderson.

In the past two years, Topeka's students in foster care have shown improvements in attendance, in standardized assessments, and in math and English grades at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Tutoring and college tours

With between 7,000 and 12,000 students in foster care at any point during a school year, Los Angeles USD launched the Foster Youth Achievement Program in 2013The district spends $ 11 million annually to support the initiative.

The achievement program employs 82 counselors who conduct comprehensive academic assessments on individual students to track attendance, educational progress and social-emotional wellness, says La Shona Jenkins, the program's coordinator. …

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