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Finding Common Ground on the Education of Children in Foster Care

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Baltimore City Public Schools and the Baltimore City Department of Social Services find common ground on the education of children in foster care.

Few moments in the life of a child and family can rival the trauma that comes the day the state knocks on the door and places that child into foster care. Often this is only the first in a fast sequence of events that will invariably alter that child's life well into adulthood.

As children around Baltimore settle into the routine of the school year, the distinct minority who enter foster care will struggle to find stability. Often, as temporary placements shift and these youngsters are jostled from placement to placement, the instability that permeates their life also seeps into their school experience.

But a novel collaboration between the Baltimore City Department of Social Services (BCDSS) and Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) holds the promise of offering something to Baltimore foster children that is in wide variance across this country: the chance at educational stability.

"It was clear to us that anything we can do to keep youngsters in school is the right thing to do," says Jonathan Brice, Executive Director of the Department of Safety & Student Support Services for Baltimore City Public Schools.

What that meant was doing something that school administrators and their counterparts in child welfare have struggled with for decades: communicate in an organized, constructive way about students in foster care.

When Molly McGrath came in as director of BCDSS in December of 2007, she recalls lines of communication between schools and social services in disarray. "The bonds of partnership were broken," McGrath says. "The relationship was in disrepair over trust issues, and we didn't know where our kids were."

At first McGrath fielded calls from consultants who promised to kick-start communications, for a fee. Instead she picked up the phone and starting making cold calls. At the other end of the line she found Brice, a partner.

In her office on North Avenue amid swathes of abandoned row houses, McGrath jokes about the conception of the plan, one that has put the city of Baltimore at the vanguard of a national push to focus on foster children's academic success. "I think we wrote it on a napkin. Every time we'd get together we'd get another crazy idea, this is just one that stuck."

Despite obstacles in confidentiality and the rusted lines of communication that had thwarted deep collaboration in the past, McGrath and Brice hit on a way to kill two birds with one stone: find children suitable placements and keep them in the same school.

In a stroke of simplicity, the two came up with an arrangement that allows social workers to access school emergency cards at the point of removal. This means that the child is removed the day that the traumatic event occurs, social workers are not only reliant on what an often recalcitrant, confused and shocked parent can suggest as a place for a child to sleep.

The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student records. But FERPA allows for disclosure "in connection with an emergency ... to appropriate persons if knowledge of such information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other persons."

In March of 2009, the two agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which laid out a simple protocol for accessing emergency cards. In the hours after a child is removed, a social worker can call over to a dispatcher up the street at BCPS. The social worker then provides a codeword, which changes daily, so that the school dispatch officer can go ahead and allow the information to be passed along.

State Senator Delores Kelley, with a long track record of advocating for foster children's rights in the state legislature understands the obstacles children face in maintaining a smooth education.

"It really makes a lot of sense," Sen. Kelley says of the collaboration going on in Baltimore City. "These kids are traumatized already; just loosing your family and losing your siblings is already tragic."

While there is a dearth of data on how students are affected by this double blow of trauma and increased mobility in Maryland and on a national scale, results from around the country paint a stark picture. The Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study found that the majority of foster youth change schools seven or more times between elementary and high school. An earlier study on the educational consequences of school mobility on California students found that changing high schools even once can cut a student's likelihood of graduation in half.

Data recently released by the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS) with partners at the University of California, Berkeley and funded by the Stuart Foundation shows that k-12 foster students score woefully lower on standardized tests than their peers. In the four counties studied in the first phase of what will be unprecedented statewide research, less than 10 percent of foster youth were proficient in math by 11th grade, compared to one-quarter of children in the general population. By grade 11, 21 percent of foster youth were proficient in English, half the rate of the general population.1

Outcomes like these contribute to foster youth having higher rates of criminal activity, unplanned pregnancies, unemployment and homelessness compared with other young people.

On a national level, the Federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 addressed this with strict mandates on states to ensure that whenever possible, foster youth are maintained in the school where they were when removed, and that they have their records promptly transferred if they indeed need to be moved. In 2009 Sens. Al Franken and Patty Murray introduced the Fostering Success in Education Act that would put the same mandates on local educational agencies, which would force public schools to do what child welfare administrations across the country are now forced to do all alone: focus on foster children's education.

While the state of Maryland has been progressive in legislation that ensures that records are transferred quickly and that foster care students are re-enrolled rapidly, there is still no legislative mechanism ensuring best efforts are made so that students in foster care can stay in their school if that is in their best interest.

Talks on how to achieve this between Maryland's Department of Education and the Department of Human Resources began in September. This high of a level of communication is something that is happening in fits and starts across the country, and is reflective of the city level push started by Brice and McGrath.

"We are excited to see early signs that when we access contact cards, we are seeing our ability to connect children in need with somebody who already knows and loves them," McGrath says.

Sometimes the simplest of ideas hold the greatest promise.

1 Investigating California Foster Youth High School & College Education Outcomes. California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, 2010.

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