Children in foster care face a number of unique challenges as they navigate the educational system. For one thing, they are much more likely to suffer the residual effects of past trauma. They are also often forced to contend with a number of academically disruptive issues related to their time in care, such as transcript errors when their placement changes and they are moved to different schools.
Several years ago, members of foster care review boards in the state gathered reports from students in care. The students reported that these school-related problems created significant barriers to success for them. Their feedback resulted in the creation of Project Wrap Around, a pilot project created and managed by the Administrative Office of the Court’s Court Improvement Program with the cooperation of the Department of Children’s Services, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the Davidson County Juvenile Court.
The overall goal of Project Wrap Around is to increase on-time graduation rates for students in foster care by providing them with greater educational stability and continuity. This, in turn, sets them up to be able to take advantage of Extension of Foster Care Benefits, which typically covers 18 through 21-year-olds in the system who are enrolled in an educational program. These benefits provide crucial support to those finishing school and entering adulthood, including funding for housing, car repairs, tuition, and independent living courses.
The problem of low graduation rates among students in foster care is acute.
“Kids in foster care graduate high school at lower rates than their peers do, and they graduate at lower rates than almost any other subgroup nationwide,” Carrie Mason, program attorney for the CIP, recently pointed out at a training session for a MNPS Foster Care Review Board.
Statewide, students in foster care have the very lowest graduation rate of any subgroup. In Tennessee, according to the latest available Tennessee Report Card, the overall four-year graduation rate among students in 2019 was 89.7 percent. For students in foster care it was 60.6 percent. To further compare, for homeless students it was 77.5 percent, and for students with an English language barrier it was 71.9 percent.
The numbers are markedly worse in Davidson County alone. In 2019, the overall four-year graduation rate was 82.4 percent, but just 31.7 percent for students in foster care. That compares with 66.2 percent for homeless students and 66 percent for students with an English language barrier.
Not only do students who drop out lose Extension of Foster Care Benefits eligibility, they are also more likely face a number of other challenges in life.
“The effects of dropping out of high school can be catastrophic,” Mason said. Data from Educationdata.org, a research group that analyzes data from the US Department of Education, shows that dropouts are more likely to live in poverty as adults, have health problems, and become incarcerated. Girls who drop out of school are also nine times more likely to become single mothers.
The reasons that young people in foster care are more likely to drop out are manifold. A major contributor is a history of suffering abuse and neglect, as Mason explained.
“Those adversities in care and out of care add up to risk in terms of education,” she said.
That past abuse and neglect can lead to later difficulties like impaired cognition, memory issues, language skills issues, and mental health concerns, all of which can hinder academic achievement.
Young people in the child welfare system also face an additional layer of complications that can make their paths to graduation more onerous.
In many cases, these complications arise when a child experiences placement disruption. Placement disruption occurs when a child is moved to a new foster home or when they are temporarily moved to a state-run facility due to behavioral or safety issues.
Placement disruption is very common for kids in care. Research shows that an average high schooler in foster care, for instance, will attend three different high schools, Mason said.
Dr. E. Katrinna Collins, coordinator of special populations with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, explained why that could be a problem.
“When students are frequently moved through the school year, each time they could be withdrawn and placed in a new school,” she said. “That significantly affects their education.”
Jennifer Woods, an education consultant with the Department of Children’s Services, said that, according to one estimate, “youths in foster care lose four to six months of academic progress with every school move.”
Children who undergo unstable placement are also twice as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.
“Having that rug pulled out from under you enough times is going to have consequences,” Mason said. “These kids experience instability across their lives, and they don’t silo those instabilities in the way adults may. We’ve got to do what we can to provide stability whenever we can.”
That, in effect, is the mission of Project Wrap Around: to achieve stability for young people in foster care through collaborative engagement and intervention at critical times.
One of the ways that stakeholders endeavor to meet that goal is through improved communication with each other about students. Project Wrap Around, for example, called for greater information exchange between DCS and MNPS about children in foster care, including prompt updates whenever those children changed placements.
This communication is essential for several reasons. Without that type of information exchange, schools may never even know which of its students are in foster care. While that information was always supposed to be shared, in reality many students fell through the cracks. Project Wrap Around set up a structured system where a school is notified right away if a student is in DCS custody.
Additionally, Project Wrap Around set up Wrap Around Meetings for all students in foster care. These meeting are attended by the students, school administration, school counselors, teachers, representatives from MNPS and DCS, and others, including guardians ad litem and CASA advocates, as appropriate.
“If we can get everyone together and on board there’s a greater chance to make sure this student has success,” Dr. Collins said.
These Wrap Around Meetings are invaluable in appraising stakeholders of a student’s background and in making sure that schools have accurate information about their students’ academic records, as many errors can occur when a child changes placement. For instance, a former school may label them a dropout if they suddenly stopped attending because their placement had been moved. Kids who switch schools or enter DCS in-house treatment facilities may also miss out on getting credits for classes they have taken already, or they may be enrolled in classes they have already completed.
These meetings also give students a chance to get back on a path toward graduation if they have been sidetracked. For example, credit recovery options can be discussed, including whether or not a student may be eligible to take tests to make up for lost credits.
For older students, additional topics enter into the conversation. These can include transition plans for life after high school, questions about independent living skills, and whether or not a youth aging out of foster care wants to sign up for Extension of Foster Care Benefits.
“Our goal is to pull all the main players together and make sure they have good plans in place,” Dr. Collins said.
For the first program year, students also underwent transcript reviews after each semester. This followed up on the type of information exchange begun in the Wrap Around Meeting. These meetings were found to be effective, identifying transcript errors in 43 percent of students in foster care.
Many aspects of Project Wrap Around conform to the values of the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). That law stated that children in foster care should remain in their school of origin, unless doing so is not in the child’s best interest. Whether or not that is the case is decided at Educational Stability Meetings, where Best Interest Determinations are made by many of the same stakeholders who attend the Wrap Around Meetings. In some instances, children who have been placed in a different school zone can receive ESSA transportation services to allow them to continue attending the same school.
“Everything we do is based on federal guidance in the ESSA guidelines to ensure that students in foster care have the same opportunities and face a level playing field relative to other students,” Dr. Collins said.
And, again, stability is a big part of creating that level playing field.
“Each time placement changes are considered we make every effort to minimize disruption of the educational setting,” Woods said.
The AOC’s Child Improvement Program staff helped organize Project Wrap Around, and their ongoing role in the program is multi-faceted. CIP staff members facilitate meetings, coordinate the transcript reviews, and continuously provide training about Project Wrap Around to different parties like Foster Care Review Boards, mental health providers, and CASA. They also work to identify and troubleshoot problems or complications that arise related to the program.
Another of their ongoing projects is data collection. Lauren Tahash, the CIP’s statistical research specialist, examines data about Project Wrap Around to get an overview of the project’s reach and impact. She co-authored a report on the program’s first year that was published in December 2020. That report found an improvement in notifications from DCS to MNPS about students in foster care, with 387 formal notifications sent during the 2018-2019 school year. Most promisingly, her analysis found that 71 percent of high school seniors in Project Wrap Around graduated on time in the 2018-19 school year. While this graduation rate does not provide a direct comparison to the Tennessee Report Card graduation rate, which represents a 4-year average, it is reason for encouragement, demonstrating how correcting students’ transcripts, recovering missing credits earned at previous schools, and otherwise supporting academic success can help students move forward.
Given the significant disruptions to schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, Project Wrap Around stakeholders are hard at work shoring up support for current students in Davidson County. There is some hope, though, that after the next school year, there could be some conversations held about expanding the program to another county with similar needs.
“Sometimes systems can be dysfunctional, but Project Wrap Around highlights how big systems are able to work together to benefit the needs of kids in care,” Mason said. “I love that. It’s encouraging.”