Serving Students Most In Need Benefits All Students: Youth in Foster Care
On average CYC serves about 140 students who were in foster care or are currently in foster care each year. This is about 6 to 7 percent of the students we serve and one of the smaller populations of students we support. Yet we also know that children and youth in foster care are often most vulnerable. We know this from experience and through the data. And, as far as any single group, the outcomes are often heart breaking. Youth in foster care are known to enter prison at higher rates, live in poverty, have children earlier, and struggle with employment. They also have some of the lowest graduation rates of any group tracked.
It should be noted that many do succeed. Youth from foster care are often the most courageous and resilient youth you will ever meet. They often note two very important things: they had some stability while in care and there was at least one positive adult connection.
To better help and support these students, the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) and the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) began collecting data on the graduation and dropout rates of students in foster care. The data started with the 2012-2013 school year and has continued to the present. Then, in 2015, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) required all states to report on foster care data.
Unfortunately, this last year in Colorado saw a drop in both the graduation and dropout rates for students in foster care. According to information provided to Colorado Youth for a Change by CDHS, the graduation rate for students in foster care for the 2015-2016 school year was 23 percent, while the dropout rate was 9 percent. For the state of Colorado the graduation rate was 79 percent and the dropout rate was 2 percent.
The most common reason cited for the low graduation rate and high dropout rate is school instability. According to CDE, students in foster care have a 55 percent mobility rate. This means that 55 percent of foster care children and youth moved out of district at least once during the school year. This rate does not factor moves within the school district, or moves between districts over the summer. This is higher than any other group. The rate for all students within Denver Public Schools was 18 percent. The rate for all students within Douglas County Public Schools was 13.2 percent. A recent study demonstrated that school mobility does in fact impact graduation. This is why a law—currently moving through the Colorado legislature—would provide funding for students to stay in their home school, or school of origin, regardless of where they are placed. Right now, if a child or youth is placed into a new home far away from their school, they will often be enrolled in the school near their placement. If the bill becomes law, which is appears to be, children and youth will have access to funds which will help pay for transportation.
Despite the odds, many students do succeed in school. In addition to having stability, Rick Lopez, a Student Advisor with CYC’s Futures Academy, explained what he thinks also helps: trust. For example, students within the foster care system have often had very troubling experiences with the adults in their lives. Youth in this situation are often moved between foster homes. They change schools. Their case workers with the county come and go. There is often not a lot of attachment with adults or deep meaningful relationships.
Rick talked about his approach and its impact on one student in particular. “If I had to sum it up I would say, keep things positive, keep the youth motivated and constantly remind them of the support and resources available.” Rick recalled one student who had recently dropped out of school. Fortunately, the school counselor had enough of a relationship with the student to make a call to Rick and have him visit the Futures Academy program. After spending some time with the student, and developing some rapport, the student was encouraged to take a pre-GED test. The student did extremely well and all signs pointed to the fact that this student could possibly pass all of the GED tests right away.
Yet the student had doubts that he really could pass the tests. After years of not feeling successful at school, the student was struggling to believe in himself. “This is a population which needs a lot of support. Positive feedback. When they start to get that positive feedback, it builds trust. They might not believe it themselves, but they start to believe you.” In other words, Rick had built enough trust and enough of a relationship with the student that he trusted Rick. If Rick believed in him and thought he could pass the tests, then maybe he could.
The student passed the first test with a score well above the norm. After seeing the first bit of success, Rick said the student started to ask him when he could take the next test. Within four months of working with CYC, he had earned his GED.
So how does serving one group benefit all groups? Simply put, focusing on the needs of one group—the highest needs group at that—brings to light the needs of all groups. In this case, it is the need for stability and a positive adult connection. As we work on this with youth in foster care, it raises questions about all students who leave school early. What role does stability and a positive adult connection have with all our students? We suspect a lot. May is Foster Care Awareness Month. If you would like to learn more about foster care visit CO4KIDS.org.