Three Years After ESSA Required It, L.A. One of the Few California Districts Making Strides in Keeping Foster Students in Their Home Schools

Former foster youth Kamika Hebbert now works to help Sacramento County foster youth connect to their schools and communities. (Kamika Hebbert)

This story originally appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change

In the eastern suburbs of Sacramento County, Kamika Hebbert keeps a watchful eye for signs of how an unstable environment affects young minds.

There’s the restlessness that comes with worry about biological parents and siblings. The thousand-mile stare that comes with trauma. The mouthing off and anger that comes with fear of being placed with another family or moved to another group home.

“I’ve had kids who have moved to 17 different schools,” said Hebbert, who helps foster youth stay in classes at the San Juan Unified School District, which includes communities northeast of the state capitol. “And [educators] expect this kid to be present in class and to be there physically, and to be there mentally? Their minds are so worried.”

That goal is personal for Hebbert, who spent time in the foster care system herself as a youngster. While Hebbert’s goal is to help foster youth utilize services and stay in school, preliminary data show that many school districts in California are struggling to live up to a now three-year-old federal requirement to ensure that foster youth have educational stability.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2015, and it mandates that local educational and child welfare agencies collaborate to create transportation plans so that foster students could return to their so-called “school of origin” if that is in their best interest. The deadline to do so was December 2016.

“We are now nearly three years past that deadline, and sadly, based on public records act requests we completed in January 2019, it appears that only 34 percent of child welfare agencies in the state [of California] have ESSA transportation plans with their local school districts,” said Alaina Moonves-Leb, a senior staff attorney with Alliance for Children’s Rights, which is currently completing research on ESSA compliance statewide. “Without comprehensive transportation plans in place, school mobility remains a major barrier for foster youth success, and a huge factor in why foster youth continuously perform below their peers in statewide data measures.”

Nationally, the story is the same. Many states and school districts have yet to implement the law, clouding the educational trajectories of thousands of foster youth every school year.

While many local education agencies complain of the cost of transporting foster youth to their home schools, a handful of California counties have come up with some notable solutions to come into compliance with federal law and promote school stability for foster students.

Policy, but no progress

A September report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that examined implementation of ESSA found that a lack of funding and high turnover among the staff assigned to handle education issues for foster youth complicated the law’s full implementation.

But California should be different, Moonves-Leb and others say. Almost 20 years ago, the state passed Assembly Bill 490, an acknowledgement that foster youth often do better when they are able to remain in their schools of origin whenever possible. In 2010 the state passed Assembly Bill 1933, which required school districts across the state to allow foster children to remain in schools they were already attending before being placed into care under most circumstances.

The goal was to help minimize the number of disruptive school transfers that foster children experience and help them graduate with their peers. The Invisible Achievement Gap, a 2013 report that linked data from California’s education and child welfare systems, showed that greater placement instability for foster youth is tied to lower academic performance. Compared with other students, foster youth in California had the highest dropout rates and were less likely to graduate from high school.

“California was ahead of the rest of the country in our recognition of the importance of school stability for foster youth,” Moonves-Leb said. “This is evident in the fact that California developed a legal right for foster youth to attend their school of origin several years before it became a federal law.”

Community and system collaboration is the key to building better stability for foster youth, said Vanessa Hernandez, director for statewide policy for California Youth Connection, a foster-youth-led advocacy organization that works on building stability in families, schools and communities.

“I think the success of ESSA are two systems talking to each other: the [child] welfare system and school system,” Hernandez said. “ESSA was born out of the acknowledgement that these two systems were not talking together. But the implementation has been poor.”

The L.A. model: $14 million and a kid-friendly ride-sharing service

Los Angeles, once woefully behind on school stability, has emerged as one of the proactive local jurisdictions in the country on the “school of origin” issue. In September, the county finalized a five-year, $14 million transportation plan for foster youths, a cost-sharing partnership between its child welfare system and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the largest of Los Angeles County’s 80 school districts, and the academic home base for more than 7,000 foster youth.

In 2017, the district and the Department of Child and Family Services created a pilot transportation program and assisted 1,131 youth with transportation to schools. They used school bus routes, or the kid-friendly ride-hailing service HopSkipDrive for a total of $4.6 million, according to a recent report by DCFS to Los Angeles County leaders.

During the pilot, L.A. County school districts did not pay for the more costly expense of the ride-share service, though they did chip in for the costs associated with using their school buses. Under the September agreement, with LAUSD and about another dozen school districts in the county, all costs will now be evenly shared between DCFS and the school districts.

San Diego, Sacramento, Ventura and Santa Clara counties all implemented similar procedures based on the L.A. County model, according to a recent report prepared by DCFS.

The report found that the private HopSkipDrive service was instrumental in getting many youth to school, including one foster student mentioned in the report who was able to graduate from high school with honors as a result of the service.

But there were also challenges, including some lack of communication between county welfare workers and district officials on which campuses youth were attending and confusion over what to do when a child was reunified with a parent in the middle of an academic year.

“Throughout the pilot, we learned that foster youth have additional transportation needs that go beyond the standard school-of-origin scenario,” according to the report.

San Diego County relies on foster parents

In San Diego County, which has the second-largest school system in the state, there are 32 foster youth utilizing transportation services this school year, said Mindy Kukich, coordinator of the foster youth service program for the San Diego County Office of Education. There were 2,289 foster students enrolled in schools across San Diego County for the 2017-18 school year, according to the latest figures available from the California Department of Education.

Kukich expects the number of kids getting a ride to school in compliance with ESSA to rise from mere double digits before the end of the school year. She said many of the county school districts have implemented plans, but there are still some pending. Kukich said the county has been able to keep 70 percent of foster youth at their schools of origin. Foster parents provide most of the rides for the students that need them. School districts and the child welfare agency share costs based on the requirements of ESSA, a stumbling block for many jurisdictions across the country since the law gave scant instructions on how the two groups were supposed to work that part out.

But ensuring that foster students have a ride to school has not stopped their too common struggle to academic success, Kukich said.

“I still think there is a piece of the puzzle we haven’t found,” she said. “We need schools to be more trauma-informed to help support the students … that will have a tremendous impact on their educational outcomes.”

Zip code recruitment

The surest way to ensure school stability is to keep kids in their schools of origin in the first place. Sacramento’s School Connect, a system built by the County Office of Education, aims to tether foster care placement to schools.

Since 2011, School Connect has provided Sacramento County social workers with a list of available foster families by zip code, so they can place foster children close to home if possible, allowing foster children to stay in the same school they attended before undergoing the trauma of being removed from their parent’s home or leaving a failed foster placement. Social workers from the county’s Department of Child, Family and Adult Services can find an available foster home by scrolling over schools in a Mapquest interface or click on foster homes on a map to find out which school districts they are linked to.

“The goal of School Connect is to improve outcomes for children by increasing placement stability, improving academic performance and decreasing the distance between Resource Homes and schools,” according to a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change from the Department of Child, Family and Adult Services.

And maintaining connections can still be difficult for other children placed in group homes or with relatives located far from home. Sandra Butorac, program manager for student support services at San Juan Unified School District, said that there are more group homes within that district than in other parts of the county, making transportation plans especially difficult.

“I find challenges with kids in group homes, including access to afterschool activities,” Butorac said. “That’s challenging because we’re really limited [in the district’s ability to coordinate transportation]. It’s always a case-by-case thing.”

Then there are the times when moving a child to live in a home a long distance from her school of origin can be in the child’s best interest.

“Oftentimes, a child leaves their school of origin because they have a relative who is willing to provide a loving home,” said Trish Kennedy, director of Foster Youth and Homeless Services for the Sacramento County Office of Education. “They sometimes live out of the area, but that would be a change of school placement but for the right reasons. The goal is always to find stability for the child.”

Teaching persistence

Hebbert, the San Juan Unified School district tech worker, said she mentors 25 to 30 students between the ages of 16 to 21.

A former foster youth herself, Hebbert, 36, said she was fortunate to have stayed in the first home she was placed in and that she benefited from that stability as well as the persistence of an independent caseworker.

“When she came to the door, I didn’t want to talk to her,” Hebbert said. “I was 16. I didn’t want to talk to any more social workers. Even though I told her, ‘No, I don’t want any more services,’ and I was rolling my eyes, she was consistent, and we ended up having a great relationship and I went to her wedding.”

Hebbert said she shared that story with her youth all the time, to encourage them to take all the services available. She also said that like that worker, she too plans to be persistent, to give them the feeling of stability that she once felt and that helped her succeed.

“I had people who were in my corner and people who did believe in me, and that’s what anybody needs to be successful,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going. I would definitely say it’s my calling to do this sort of work.”

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