ESSA Implementation Lessons Learned: Blog 2

ESSA Implementation Lessons Learned: How Colorado Supports the Educational Stability of Students in Foster Care

This blog is the second in a three-part series highlighting lessons learned by states as they implement their consolidated state plans for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This series will share insights and advice from state leaders on how they have organized their work and navigated challenges, specifically tailored for states engaged in similar efforts.

Colorado Profile
State: Colorado ESSA implementation approach: Collaboration across education and human services teams to support students in foster care

Students in foster care often experience higher rates of school instability than their peers. In response to this unique student experience, ESEA emphasizes collaboration between states, districts, and human services agencies to ensure the school stability—and the academic achievement—of students in foster care. Title I, Part A, contains provisions aimed at limiting the educational disruptions experienced by students in foster care.

Click here to learn more about the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance and resources for serving students in foster care.

We spoke with Kristin Melton, youth services manager at the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS), and Kristin Myers, director of foster care education at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), to learn more about how education and human services teams work together to support foster students in Colorado. Following are excerpts (edited for clarity) from the conversation:

Describe Colorado’s overall approach to ensuring educational stability and success for students in foster care. What led to the structure/approach that Colorado currently has?

CDHS is a county-administered system, meaning that each county has an independent department of human services (DHS). Each county’s DHS is aware of which students are in foster care because the DHS is making foster placements. For that reason, the DHS really has to be involved when a student is transitioning between caregivers and/or schools. Colorado also is a local-control state in terms of education, so school districts govern their own operations, academic programs, and additional supports for students. This allows districts to create structures that make sense for their contexts.

“Colorado has been very intentional about keeping the focus on the children. Every structure, every rule, every service we provide is intended to serve the students, even if it creates some additional work for the districts or state.”

The school district and county DHS work together to support foster students. In determining whether a foster student should stay at his or her current school or transfer to a new school, the student’s needs, both academic and nonacademic, are taken into consideration. For example, school and DHS staff try to determine whether the child has at least one supportive adult at his or her current school, given that a supportive adult plays a significant role in student success. We also consider the goal of permanency and giving the student as much stability as possible. Appropriate transportation is provided if a student’s transportation needs change due to the determination.

“It’s important to communicate thoughtfully. Educators are used to the education structure, and human services is used to its own funding structure and norms.”

Ultimately, the county DHS staff make the determination about whether students stay in the same school or move, though they do this in consultation with school staff. Sometimes, there might be friction if school districts and the county DHS are focusing on different factors or using different language to discuss the same factors. In addition, family privacy can be an issue. There may be information that is impacting the county DHS’s determination, but that information can’t be shared with the school district (e.g., the potential or a timeline for reunifying a child with his or her parents). Over the last couple of years, counties and school districts have worked hard to build relationships and establish shared processes for providing transportation to keep foster youth in their schools. The state departments have supported by making connections between local agencies and providing technical assistance when requested.

What successes have you had so far? What complications? What will you need to accomplish in the future to ensure long-term, meaningful change?

It can be challenging for local-control states to implement something consistently across different jurisdictions. Sometimes local staff want more guidance and sometimes they don’t. The plus side of local control is the ability to innovate. Local control allows jurisdictions to create the structures that work best for them, such as cost sharing, transportation services, or points of contact.

Example in practice: Jefferson County is meeting the needs of its students through a pilot to provide more social-emotional and transitional supports to students in foster care. This shows the district’s consideration of what’s actually happening during the school day for foster care students, not just whether they graduate or not.

We’ve also had success in building collaboration between districts and local human services agencies, both through meetings that CDE and CDHS have hosted and through local efforts to build and sustain those interagency relationships. These local staff are moving past introductions and are starting to do meaningful work. They’re considering questions like “How do we want to fund transportation?” and “How will we communicate with each other?” We have hope for continued meaningful, effective collaboration at the local level. County and Local Education Agency staff are moving past introductions and are moving forward on collaborative implementation of Federal and State school stability laws. These staff are considering equitable cost sharing for the remaining 20% of cost that is not covered by the state for transportation. Additionally, they are coming up with local solutions for communication practices. We have hope for continued meaningful, effective collaboration at the local level.

Are you involving stakeholders (for example, caregivers, birth parents, students, representatives from the court system, human services, and education) in developing and managing initiatives to support foster students? If so, how are you involving stakeholders?

At the local level, decision makers engage students and parents in individual cases; they are required to get the student’s and parent or caregiver’s input before deciding whether a student should stay or switch schools. (To find out more about the factors that Colorado considers when making a best interest determination, please see the Foster Care Best Interest Determinations (BID) Frequently Asked Questions resource.)

At the state level, we try to engage young people wherever they can provide meaningful input. The state had a task force on House Bill 18-1306, which focuses on improving the educational stability for students in foster care. This task force included students and representatives from multiple state agencies.

What resources would you recommend for other states to support foster care efforts?

CDHS has a public Google Drive folder of resources to support educational success for foster students. The folder includes a sample memorandum of understanding for human service agencies and school districts. As Colorado is a local-control state, the sample is intended for local agencies, but it can be tailored to the appropriate district/state context. The folder also includes tools to notify schools if a current student is entering foster care or if a foster student is entering a school.

CDE also has a foster care page, which provides a toolkit and tutorials to support foster students under House Bill 18-1306.

Click here to check out the final post in the series, “Ohio’s Collaborative School Improvement Model.”