A Pima County pilot project that improves foster children’s educational outcomes seeks to expand statewide after a recent study found that Arizona’s foster children face many educational challenges.
But House Bill 2665, which would do so, remains in committee as the Arizona Legislature works on a budget.
The FosterEd: Arizona pilot project in Pima County “has been collaborating with leaders within both state and local agencies to ensure that every child has an education champion who can support the student’s long-term success,” said Michelle Traiman, director of FosterEd at the National Center for Youth Law.
That educational champion is often a family member or someone who will remain connected to the youth long after the youth leaves foster care, said Pete Hershberger, director of FosterEd: Arizona, the Pima County pilot project.
That education champion then leads an education team of engaged adults – including caregivers, teachers, social workers, CASA’s and other adult mentors – who work together to create an educational plan to meet strengths and needs of the youth, and the team is responsible for implementing the plan, Hershberger said.
An additional benefit is that the education team “brings together state agencies, heretofore operating as independent silos with the foster youth,” Hershberger said.
“This promotes communication between the agencies focused on the needs of the foster youth rather than the function of each separate agency,” Hershberger said.
Foster Ed: Arizona staff are located within local child welfare agencies and work “hand-in-hand with social workers to ensure that students needs are being met,” Traiman said.
“Social workers, (principals), teachers, mental health workers, judges, families, and others involved in the project feel strongly that the program is providing Pima County foster youth with critical supports,” Traiman said.
FosterEd was initially supported in 2012 by a grant from the ACCIO Education Fund, a venture capital type of charitable fund created by Arizona Community Foundation and Helios Education Foundation. Since then other foundations have since become critical supporters, notably The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.
“This effort would not be possible without the thought-partnership, leadership and investment made by the philanthropic community,” Traiman said.
Independent evaluations have found that the program has a measurable positive impact on the students’ educational outcomes, Traiman said.
Since 2014, FosterEd: Arizona has supported 315 foster youth in Pima County with an education team and education plan, and attendance rates have improved for students in the program, according to an evaluation by RTI International.
The five most common goals for foster children in the pilot project were enrolling in appropriate schools or classes, acquiring academic records and credits, ensuring students receive appropriate special education services and 504 accommodations, helping students access enrichment resources and extracurricular activities and supporting reading proficiency.
About 67 percent of goals set for students in the program were completed, 17 percent of goals had some objective met, three percent were future goals and just 13 percent of goals had no objectives met, according to the evaluation.
FosterEd: Arizona has formed strong partnerships with the Department of Child Safety, Arizona Department of Education, behavioral health and the Juvenile Court, Hershberger said.
“The excitement caused by FosterEd in Pima County is encouraging,” Hershberger said. “Not only does this program, our pilot program, help individual children, we’re changing systems that deal with children.”
The partnership also has led to creating protocols to protect information about students in foster care that the Arizona Department of Education will train school districts on throughout the state, Hershberger said.
To communicate and share data between teams and agencies, FosterEd: Arizona used Goal Book, but will be phasing it out at the end of June for an open-source tool that anyone can use being under development, Hershberger said.
“This model has demonstrated considerable success in Pima County as it has in Indiana and California,” Hershberger said. “The fourth pilot has begun in New Mexico, where youth from both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are served.”
No single agency can close the achievement gap alone, Traiman said.
“Success requires a dynamic, systemic and dedicated approach to cross-agency collaboration that brings together child welfare, education, the courts, mental health agencies and community based organization working collectively on behalf of this incredible group of young people,” Traiman said.