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Perspective | Forging futures: Increasing graduation rates for students in foster care

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An average of 419,728 children were in foster care in the United States between the years of 2017 and 2021. For these students, the impact of being in foster care can have a serious detrimental effect on their education. The sheer number of difficulties and barriers that prevent educational equity in this population is staggering. Students in foster care not only must deal with the trauma that led to their placement in foster care in the first place, they also must cope with new living situations, which can mean changing schools and communities and facing the hurdles that come with those changes. 

Students in foster care disproportionately receive special education services, routinely score lower than peers in reading and math assessments, and are often unable to take advantage of extra-curricular opportunities. They also exhibit poorer school attendance rates, increased numbers of disciplinary referrals, higher dropout rates, and lower graduation rates. In addition, students in foster care also have lower rates of attending college — and subsequently dropping out of college — than their peers who do not face the challenges of living in foster care. 

Considering the many barriers foster students must face during their educational journey, it is absolutely necessary that all stakeholders associated with a student’s educational outcomes work to create equitable educational experiences for students in foster care in an effort to increase graduation rates and forge brighter futures for these students.

In North Carolina for example, the four year high school graduation rate for the 2019-2020 school year was 88%. However, when singling out North Carolina students in foster care, only 57% of those students graduated in four years. 

The consequences of not graduating from high school presents other challenges for foster youth, such as finding employment or going to college. It is widely known that those with high school diplomas earn more than those who don’t, and earnings during working years are even higher for those with college degrees. Missing out on graduation from high school or college means that students in foster care are more likely to face hardships such as unemployment and homelessness as adults. Even if students in foster care graduate from high school and attend college, it is estimated that as few as as few as 2% receive a bachelor’s or advanced degree. 

One organization that is making immense strides in improving graduation rates for foster youth is Treehouse in Seattle, Washington. According to Treehouse, only 36% of foster youth graduated from high school in Washington State in 2013. Determined to change that statistic, the organization set out to partner foster youth with educational specialists who worked to ensure that barriers to educational equity were removed and that foster youth received the support they needed to be academically successful and graduate from high school. As of 2022, 75% of foster youth that were partnered with mentors and educational specialists now graduate from high school in Washington State. Their goal: 90% by 2027. 

Treehouse is a testament to the change that is possible. So what can local education agencies do to improve the graduation rates of their own foster populations? The Casey Family Programs Foundation set forth a call to action in their 2009 publication, “Improving Educational Continuity and School Stability for Children in Out-of-Home Care,” in which they outline a model and framework designed to promote the educational success of students in foster care. In 2022, the Texas Education Agency published a handbook to help facilitate the discussion about the education of foster youth and how to improve educational outcomes for these students. A few of the recommendations in these publications include:  

  • Maintaining School Stability — Students in foster care can experience many placements during their time in care. This can mean moves between numerous homes, school districts, and communities. Frequent moves make it difficult for students to develop and maintain relationships, establish routines, and acclimate to new surroundings and situations. It can also mean an increase in educational gaps, since each class they enter may be at different places in different curriculums. Absences are increased as well, since these students and their records often take time to transition to new schools. This increase in absences means missed classroom material, which in turn produces further gaps in learning. To address this, when moves cannot be avoided, all attempts should be made to allow students to stay at their home school, even if they move out of district. Special transportation should be provided to maintain their school environment. Transitions should also be as quick and seamless as possible to ensure that time missed in the classroom is minimal. 
  • Collaboration Between Agencies — Many people shoulder the responsibility for ensuring that students in foster care enjoy educational success. Teachers, school counselors, school administrators, social workers, and advocates in the court system are all important members of a foster student’s “dream team.” Each person plays a significant role in student outcomes and therefore, should come together and create a comprehensive plan for student success. Appointing a “foster care liaison” to facilitate collaboration is a great place to start. 
  • Staff Training —All invested parties should have trauma informed training and should be aware of the educational obstacles students in foster care encounter. All parties should also understand the general nature of legal procedures and what a student’s journey through the system might look like, even when specifics cannot be disclosed due to confidentiality concerns. This ensures that those responsible for the educational success of these students have a similar understanding of the mental, emotional, educational, and legal concerns surrounding students in foster care and can formulate a comprehensive plan as a team. It is also important that each member understand the roles that each individual agency plays in the process and how they can help each other to meet their goals. 

While this list isn’t comprehensive, it does begin to provide a framework for which local education agencies can work to plan for, promote, and facilitate educational success for students in foster care, and in turn, increase the graduation rates for this population. Students in foster care are often marginalized and lack access to a comprehensive team that is committed to their academic success. It’s time we change that. 

Deandra Tart

Deandra Tart is a current Ph.D. student in the Teacher Education and Learning Science program at North Carolina State University. She earned a Master of Education degree from NC State in 2013 and has 17 years of experience in public education.