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California schools fall short on foster youth services, study says

Most California school districts are failing to deliver specific help to foster youth, study says.

Most major California school districts still fall short in boosting support for foster students, as the state's revised school funding system now requires, a new study says.

Under the new system, districts now receive extra funds to help foster youth overcome myriad challenges that educators say have contributed to their poor academic performance and high dropout rates. But the study by Public Counsel, a Los Angeles pro bono law firm, found that few of 64 school districts examined had adopted specific goals, taken concrete actions or invested targeted dollars to do so.

"We were hoping to see more," said Laura Faer, the study's coauthor.

Only two districts outlined goals and actions to address attendance issues, for instance, and just a few did so for suspensions. And many districts spent as much or more on school police as on alternatives to harsh discipline practices.

But Faer said most districts were doing "a lot of good stuff overall" in setting goals to help improve attendance, reduce suspensions and expulsions and invest in alternatives to harsh discipline practices for all students. 

A few districts, she said, are "leading the way" in improving services for foster youth -- including Los Angeles Unified. In its 2014-15 plan for how it intended to use the new state dollars for the disadvantaged students, the district pledged to give them comprehensive academic assessments, an individual learning plan leading to graduation and access to specific counselors, psychiatric social workers and other staff. The district also set goals -- a 55% attendance rate -- and invested $9.9 million to help foster students.

Other districts singled out for praise included San Diego Unified, which devoted funds for mentor teachers to monitor the behavior, attendance and academic progress of foster students. Temecula Valley Unified also committed to providing a dedicated staff person for the students, while Lancaster Unified and Vallejo City Unified pledged to reduce suspensions and bullying with more staff and student training on alternatives to harsh discipline practices, among other things.

Faer said many districts may have been hampered in creating concrete plans by the lack of data on their foster youth numbers. Until 2013, privacy laws prevented state education and social services officials from sharing such data but various changes allowed the state to release the information to districts for the first time last fall. L. A. Unified, however, worked out its own agreement with L.A. County officials for such data several years ago.

"The big barriers districts were facing when they didn't have all of the data have been removed and we're hoping for more concrete goals and actions this next year," Faer said. "The time is ripe to do this."

District plans for the next school year on how to spend state dollars to boost student achievement, improve a school's learning environment, move toward new academic standards and other priorities are due July 1. The plans must detail how districts plan to use extra dollars for students who are low-income, learning English and in foster care.

The study also found -- and criticized -- increased spending on school police at many districts despite what it called "strong evidence" that students who are arrested or cited on campus lag academically. Inglewood Unified allocated $2.5 million on school security officers and cameras but only $62,500 on incentive programs for better behavior, while L.A. Unified budgeted $13.1 million of funds received for disadvantaged youth for school police and just $4 million on counselors for restorative justice, an alternative discipline program.

"We strongly question whether [such] expenditures ... on law enforcement are legally permissible," the study said.

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

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