May is National Foster Care Month — and a time to reflect on changes that our state needs to make.
Students who experience foster care deserve a robust public education and support to graduate, don’t you agree? In Michigan, though, we see these students being left behind. As of 2018, the last year we have numbers that aren’t affected by the pandemic, only 40% of youth experiencing foster care graduated high school: a much lower rate than their peers.
As an organization that works directly with students who experience a wide range of educational barriers, SAC has seen a particular need to implement state-level policies that support students in foster care. Students in foster care experience academic disruption regularly – an average of two moves per year in Michigan – which has negative effects on credit accrual and educational attainment. After collaborating with students with lived experience in child welfare, foster parents, educators, and state-level officials, Student Advocacy Center has made recommendations to the Governor’s Office, DHHS, and legislators on how we as a state can provide equitable education access for youth in foster care.
Here’s quick overview for our recommendations for change:
First, we propose addressing the Michigan Merit Curriculum, or state-level high school graduation requirements, to include protections for students who experience academic disruption. Right now, school districts can require more than the 18 credit state minimum for any student to graduate — and this can be tough for a young person being bounced from placement to placement. We propose changes to state law so that districts must allow students who are part of these identified groups to graduate with Michigan Merit Curriculum requirements (18 credits), rather than forcing them to stay in school longer chasing 22 or more credits. (Note: These students may choose to earn more than the 18 required credits and would not be required to graduate early upon meeting 18 credits.)
Second, we suggest that school districts minimize credit disruption when a student moves mid-semester. Sending schools must immediately provide documentation of completed coursework and relevant recommendations. Receiving school staff must develop an education plan in collaboration with the student, caregiver(s), and district foster care liaison that allows the student to complete courses a student has already started. Receiving schools should be required to explore all options to help students complete required courses started in the previous school, including testing out of some or all of a given course and credit recovery.
Third, we propose a required consideration of the Michigan Personal Curriculum for use with students experiencing foster care. This should not be dependent on a foster parent or caseworker knowing to ask about this.
The Michigan Personal Curriculum allows students to demonstrate competency and meet standards through nontraditional course methods — but currently, families often need to ask for it. We suggest that students experiencing educational disruption be automatically evaluated for a Personal Curriculum with the express goal of on-time graduation. An existing Personal Curriculum should be honored by any new school.
Fourth, the state should create a standing line item in the DHHS budget to contract out for external education targeted case management / specialized education advocacy AND Codify a requirement that DHHS fund external targeted case management / specialized education advocacy. In the Yale Law Journal, Phillips (2008) argues students with disabilities need external advocates to achieve optimal outcomes because of the complexity of disabilities, formal rules of the system, lack of knowledge about the disability and system, and difficulty interacting with schools. These challenges are exacerbated for low-income homes and court-involved youth. The need for external advocates for youth experiencing foster care has been recognized in Michigan before. In 2006, Student Advocacy Center’s education advocacy model with youth experiencing foster care (launched in 1994) was exemplified in recommendations made to the legislature by the Interdepartmental Task Force on Service to At-Risk Youth Transitioning to Adulthood. The Task Force recommended that SAC’s model be expanded statewide so that more children in foster care be provided an education advocate, seeking to increase the number of foster youth finding school success and graduating. Washtenaw County Department of Health and Human Services has contracted with SAC to provide educational advocacy since 2007 and has years of data showing increases in school attendance, grades and supports in school, as well as decreases in discipline incidents. Genneessee County also contracts with an external education advocate. Other states also recognize the value of this approach. The state of Washington invested $12 million (2022) in Treehouse, a human service organization that provides education advocacy, mentoring and other academic supports to youth experiencing foster care. Treehouse has achieved a long-term 4-year student graduation rate of 75%, significantly surpassing the state’s overall 4-year high school graduation rate of 53%.
Fifth, MDHHS should reinstate and expand internal education planners in every county to support school enrollment and coordination of transportation, and assessing and identifying students who need that external individualized support. On July 3, 2008 then Governor Jennifer Granholm signed a settlement agreement and Michigan DHS agreed to maintain 14 education planners to provide consultation and support to youth 14 and older in accessing educational needs and developing individualized education plans. In 2012, Metis and Associates completed a rigorous quasi experimental design study for Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative focusing on educational outcomes for youth participating in Opportunity Passport. The research design enabled Metis to assess high school and GED graduation rates for participants before and after the implementation of education planner positions. Metis was able to identify statistically significant post policy increases in high school diploma and GED completion rates for Opportunity Passport participants, related to the work of MDHHS Education Planners. In future modified agreements, the specific requirement for education planners was removed, and in 2022, DHHS eliminated the education planners at the very time all students in Michigan were struggling academically and emotionally due to the pandemic.
Finally, we call for reduced expulsions and suspensions and additional school discipline protections for students who experience academic disruption. We recommend that Michigan codify due process protections such as appeals, establish data transparency, add considerations to removals including homelessness and trauma, and give families rights and a voice in the discipline process, while making the process more clear for districts.
Again, these recommendations were developed in conversation with many, many partners. And elected officials in Lansing are starting to act.
We encourage you to reach out to your elected officials and share these recommendations for change!