Thousands of California students in foster care are suffering from an "invisible achievement gap," with worse academic performance, a higher dropout rate and placement in more failing schools than their statewide peers, according to a study set for release Monday.
The study, which provides the first detailed statewide look at foster youths and their academic challenges, was made possible by a new data-sharing agreement between the state education and social services agencies. It comes as school districts across California prepare to launch the nation's first effort to systematically address the yawning academic deficiencies among foster youths, using additional money provided by the state's new school financing law.
"This report makes these invisible kids visible," said Teri Kook of the Stuart Foundation, which funded the study by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd in San Francisco. "The experiences they've had — abuse, neglect, moving from home to home — are having an impact on their ability to academically achieve."
The report shows that Los Angeles County had by far the most public school students in foster care — 12,648 of the 43,140 students identified — with the largest number attending L.A. Unified schools. Although Latinos made up the biggest group at 43%, African Americans were disproportionately represented at 26% — more than three times larger than their share of the population —followed by whites at 23% and Asians at 2%.
The youths switched schools more often than other students — each transfer can set a student back as many as six months, research shows — and suffered far greater levels of emotional trauma than their peers. Such factors, researchers said, are key reasons why they performed worse in English, math and the high school exit exam than even low-income students overall.
Only 37% of foster youths were at grade level in math — scoring lower than all other student groups, including those with disabilities and limited English. Their high school dropout rate in 2009-10 was 8%, more than twice the rate of their statewide peers.
Oscar Zavala, a 20-year-old Palmdale resident, can attest to the challenges faced by those in foster care. A Honduran native with a single mother, Zavala struggled with hyperactivity, learning disabilities and bullying from an early age. He transferred to different schools more than 10 times and was in and out of group homes after he began tangling with the law — using drugs, stealing a car, bruising his mother in an altercation.
The frequent transfers set him back. He took algebra in ninth grade but was scheduled with the same class in 10th grade at a different school, which failed to look at his previous transcript. When he transferred to a third school at the end of sophomore year, he was yanked out of algebra and placed in geometry — even though he had already missed most of the course.
"It was a struggle," Zavala said. "I was always behind because I kept coming in and out of schools."
Eventually, he graduated from high school and plans to study nursing at Los Angeles Mission College. He said that tutors who helped him while in foster care, the desire to keep up good grades so he could play high school football and his supportive mother got him back on track.
"I didn't want to wash dishes for the rest of my life," he said.
Mentors made the difference for Mario Perez, an art major at Cal State Northridge. Influenced by an older brother and his friends, he began ditching school and fighting. He was placed in a group home for foster youths following several weeks in juvenile detention for possessing a firearm that he obtained, he said, after surviving a drive-by shooting.
Although he failed all of his classes in his first semester at Santa Monica High School, Perez said the group setting helped him learn such skills as time management. But the biggest aid was a mentor, Johnny Ramirez, from the Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica. Ramirez encouraged him — but also warned him about the disproportionate number of young Latinos and African Americans whose struggles with school lead to prison. Perez improved his grades to A's and B's and graduated from Dorsey High School.
"He kept me motivated," Perez said of Ramirez, adding that his father's lack of education and long hours as a chef hampered his ability to guide him. "He's the reason I made it this far."
But such success stories are unusual among foster youths. The study showed that 58% of 12th-graders in foster care in 2009-10 graduated from high school, compared with 84% of their statewide peers. Other studies have shown that fewer than half of foster youths enroll in college and just a fraction graduate.
The WestEd study was based on 2009-10 data of public school students under age 18, obtained after state education and social services officials agreed to match up their information for the first time. Federal educational privacy laws had discouraged schools from sharing such data in the past, but a federal law took effect this year allowing them to disclose student records with child welfare agencies, even without parental consent.
In Los Angeles County, L.A. Unified and the county Department of Children and Family Services launched a similar data-sharing operation last year. It took five years to work through the legal and technical issues, but school district official Debra Duardo said the agreement has resulted in better services for foster youths. The district now receives weekly county lists of students in foster care, while social workers gain immediate access to such records as attendance, test scores, grades, enrollment history and class schedules.
L.A. Unified educates more than 10% of the state's foster youth student population. The WestEd study identified 5,043 students, but Duardo put the current figure at 7,500.
Some of those students are now receiving tutoring and other services through the $15-million state foster youth services program; the district also spends about $300,000 annually for three counselors. But under the state's new school financing system, school districts will eventually receive about $1,500 per foster student in addition to the $7,000-plus basic grant for each public school student.
School districts across California are crafting plans on how to spend that money to meet the myriad academic challenges facing foster youths.
"The good thing is that children are very resilient," Duardo said. "We believe if we can get them proper support and connect them with loving, caring adults, they will make gains."