As many California foster students struggle to succeed academically, they face multiple obstacles just getting to school.
Foster students miss the most school days of any group of students in the state. But school districts and county agencies are trying to improve attendance by eliminating transportation barriers and ensuring that students don’t change schools too frequently, among other efforts.
More than a quarter of foster students in the state were chronically absent, which means they missed at least 10 percent of the school year or approximately 18 days, according to 2017-18 data from the California Department of Education, the most recently available. Nearly 34,500 foster students are in California, according to the state.
California has been targeting foster students with extra money in an effort to improve their academic outcomes. A half-dozen years ago, the state became the first in the country to include foster students in its funding formula and provide districts with additional funding for those students. However, high absenteeism rates remain an obstacle and districts and counties are making efforts to tackle the issue.
The chronic absenteeism rate varies widely among school districts depending on how many foster students they enroll. For example, in larger counties, such as San Francisco, the chronic absenteeism rate was nearly 53 percent and in smaller counties, such as Inyo, the rate was 71 percent.
Among the top 10 school districts with more than 100 foster students enrolled, Fullerton Joint Union high school district in Orange County had a 67.4 percent chronic absenteeism rate. Antelope Valley Union high school district in Los Angeles County has nearly 650 foster students and a 45 percent chronic absenteeism rate.
Foster care advocates describe several challenges these young people face that keep them from regularly attending school: transportation costs, multiple home placements, lack of communication between social workers and school districts, a failure to understand enrollment policies and mental health issues.
It all adds up to foster children typically missing many school days.
While some foster students choose to miss school for a variety of social or emotional reasons, foster care advocates pinpoint their constant mobility as the significant cause behind absences.
“With each move, six months of instructional time is lost,” said Margaret Olmos, director of FosterEd California, a project of the National Center for Youth Law, which researches and campaigns for policies that help children and teens in foster care. “We don’t know how often they move, but we do know the effect of moving,”
Part of the problem lies in the failure of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law in 2015 by President Obama and overhauled the federal education system, Olmos said. The law requires school districts and child welfare agencies, whenever possible, to provide foster students with transportation to the school they attended before entering foster care. But it didn’t explain how districts and counties would split the costs of transportation, she said.
The impact of school instability
Foster students tend to move from one housing placement, such as those living with foster families or in group homes and shelters, to another many times throughout their time in the system. These placement changes sometimes mean they need to change schools. And the effect of those changes, in some cases, leads to chronic absenteeism.
Among California students in foster care for less than one year, 17 percent were enrolled in three or more schools, according to a 2016 report from the Stuart Foundation, which supports improving the lives of young people through education. Among students who have been in foster care for three or more years, 6 percent attended three or more schools in an academic year.
Foster students on average also test lower in English proficiency than all students — at 22 percent for 11th-graders compared to 57.2 percent for all students in 2018-19. Only 6 percent met or exceeded the 11th-grade statewide average in math. Fewer than 3 percent of foster students achieve a college degree. And more than half of foster students will be homeless, incarcerated or on welfare within two years of aging out of the care system, according to the Alliance, which cited research from WestEd.
Nicole Assisi was aware of those statistics when she decided to open her home to a 15-year old foster son, who also is a relative, two months ago. But there was one problem: the teenager pleaded to be able to stay at his high school even though it was a two-hour round trip from Assisi’s home.
“I talked to my kiddo and said, ‘We might need to change schools,’” she said. “And he was distraught. He was like, can we please figure something out.”
The request “created this really hard decision point of moving a child who is already experiencing significant trauma away from friends after they had been removed from this family relationship,” she said. “I wasn’t going to create this loss of friendship and consistency.”
Assisi, a former high school principal and teacher, has a 9-month-old and 6-year-old of her own, and would wake around 5 a.m. to prepare all three for the single commute to a high school, elementary school and day care before 9 a.m. in the San Diego area.
Assisi and her husband considered using car services such as Uber, but ultimately, they found HopSkipDrive, a private company that provides transportation services to foster students and partners with school districts to help get students to school.
How school-of-origin can eliminate attendance barriers
Under state and federal law, whenever possible, child welfare agencies and school districts must allow foster students to be transported to their original school, which is the school they attended before entering foster care or the one they most recently attended.
Cynthia Butler, a public information officer with California Department of Education, said school district employees try to eliminate all of the attendance barriers foster students face besides transportation and school-of-origin.
“They often find that foster students also have anxiety or depression as barriers to attendance,” she said. “The goal is to identify the barriers to attendance as early as possible to provide applicable support services and interventions.”
The federal law attempts to remove any transportation barriers foster students face that could prevent them from attending their primary school because of placement changes. The provision is based on an earlier 2003 California law known as AB 490, but goes further by mandating cost-sharing agreements between county agencies and school districts.
But Olmos said neither state or federal law is being widely followed in California. CDE says it monitors school districts to make sure they have clear policies for how transportation is provided and funded to keep foster students in their original schools.
“But what is happening is very few places in California have those agreements,” Olmos said. “No one wants to pay for this.”
Foster students are pulled out of their schools and districts don’t know about it. Those agreements, which can be expensive for districts and counties, would help enforce the communication that should happen between school districts and child welfare agencies when these moves occur, she said.
John Sasaki, director of communications for Oakland Unified, said the district doesn’t have a transportation agreement in place for foster students. The district’s absentee rate for foster students is 45.1 percent.
“We are collaborating with Alameda County’s Department of Children and Family Services in developing a (memorandum of understanding) and exploring all transportation options for Alameda County foster youth,” he said. “Our foster youth are high priority for the district, as they deserve all of the benefits of a high-quality education without having to overcome any additional barriers.”
Patricia Armani, with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, said the lack of transportation agreements between districts and counties is a problem that could be contributing to the high rate of absenteeism among the state’s foster students. But she believes the bigger problem is that constant mobility leads to poor record-keeping and communication between the school districts and social workers.
“Very often, when social workers have to remove children from their homes or when they’re replacing a foster youth from one foster home to another, no one notifies the school,” Armani said. “When you don’t do that, the kids get marked absent when they might already be transferred to a new school or enrolled in a new school.”
But foster students may run into more roadblocks when they try to enroll in a new school so the chronic absenteeism rate could be underreported, Olmos said.
“The chronic absenteeism number doesn’t capture the gap in time between falling off one school’s (attendance) rolls and enrolling in another,” Olmos said. “There’s no awareness around school-of-origin, and counties and schools aren’t always aware of the immediate enrollment legal requirement.”
Under AB 490, foster children are allowed to enroll immediately in a new school even if they don’t have the required school uniforms or academic, medical or residency records normally required for enrollment.
April Barcus, a 23-year-old college student in Santa Clarita, attended 22 different high schools and three middle schools after entering the foster care system as a 12-year-old. Barcus said she was chronically absent for a variety of reasons even though she enjoyed school and wanted to be there.
“One or two homes didn’t immediately enroll me in a school and those were 30-day placements,” Barcus said. When she was in school, she was happy. “The schools were fantastic. I’m a big nerd, so it was my escape. I was more comfortable at school than at home.”
Barcus acknowledged that sometimes she would run away from her new foster home if it wasn’t a good fit or wasn’t safe, which meant staying out of school for several months at a time.
“I did suffer from it,” she said. “I didn’t want to go AWOL, but when crashing on my friend’s couch is safer than a foster home, I would take that option.”
And although Barcus could have attended her original school under state law, she said she was never given this option or even knew about it.
Barcus, who advocates on behalf of foster children and teens still in the system, said the constant moving had a detrimental effect on her education. She learned she wouldn’t graduate on time, despite qualifying for AB 167 — a state law that exempts foster students from meeting additional school district graduation requirements if they change schools in the 11th or 12th grade. Some school districts, for example, require more than two math courses to graduate. Foster students could graduate from those districts without taking a third math course if they transferred in the last two years of high school.
Barcus, who is now studying political science at College of the Canyons, was able to earn her high school diploma after attending a charter high school as a 19-year-old.
Alaina Moonves-Leb, a senior staff attorney for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, said once a foster student visits their new school, there may be even more confusion.
“Foster youth have the right to immediately enroll and there are a lot of definitions of immediate,” Moonves-Leb said, adding that some districts may only allow enrollment on a specific day of the week, or at particular times of the year, which would violate the foster student law.
Some schools may force foster students to enroll at an alternative school rather than the local traditional school, because they may be arriving in the middle of the academic year. Or they may be confused about enrolling a student who doesn’t have transcripts or records, she said.
“None of those things are okay,” Moonves-Leb said. “The child welfare system is supposed to provide notification whenever a home change is happening that affects school placement. We know sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
These notifications don’t happen because in reality anytime a child is pulled from a home, it’s an emergency situation, Moonves-Leb said, adding that some trauma has occurred to force the move and the priority is the child’s safety.
A national problem and a Los Angeles solution
California isn’t the only state with districts that have struggled with establishing these transportation and school-of-origin agreements for foster students. A federal Government Accountability Office report released in September found states faced financial and administrative challenges to transporting foster students to their original school.
Moonves-Leb said a handful of school districts and counties have been creating transportation agreements and figuring out ways to improve absenteeism, but “I don’t think anyone, from what we’ve seen, has it completely figured out.”
Los Angeles County’s children and families department, the Office of Education and the Office of Child Protection, has one of the most substantive agreements in the state after engaging in a two-year school transportation pilot with the area’s school districts to improve transporting foster students to their schools of origin. The L.A. agencies agreed to a five-year, at least $14 million transportation plan in September.
The transportation costs are split evenly between the county and the area’s 80 school districts. Los Angeles Unified, which enrolls about 7,000 foster students, approved $7.2 million over five years for the plan. The district’s chronic absenteeism rate is 26.2 percent. The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which enrolls nearly 1,200 foster students, has a 29.6 percent absenteeism rate.
The county also partnered with HopSkipDrive, the company Assisi, the San Diego foster mom, uses. The Los Angeles plan also uses a variety of transportation options to help foster students get to their original school, including reimbursing the foster student’s caregiver or relying on school bus routes. The plan allows foster students in Los Angeles to rely on buses and mass transit.
As a parent, Assisi said she knows transporting students to school can be expensive. She pays HopSkipDrive $40 a day to transport her foster child to his high school, and she doesn’t receive reimbursements, but she isn’t complaining.
“He’s a B student with honors classes,” she said. “He has every opportunity to go to college, and I’m not going to mess this up for him.”