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Washington Solves Data Sharing Puzzle to Help Foster Students

Thanks to legislation, the state has broken down barriers to data sharing, which has improved how education and child welfare agencies track foster care students. The result: improved graduation rates.

Editor's note: This is the second story in a three-part series on foster care data sharing. May is National Foster Care Month, and an opportunity to examine how policymakers, researchers, and education and child welfare leaders are working together to help foster care students succeed academically. Part 1: Foster Care Student Data Emerges from the Shadows

Jess Lewis has spent more than a decade at the state and local level helping homeless students and children who were waiting to find out if they would enter the foster care system. She's passionate about assisting mobile groups of students by making sure that systems don't create barriers for them.  

Her passion is personal. Lewis is taking care of two foster boys who are 10 and 11, and she wants them to have the same education opportunities she had so they can be successful.  

"It's always been my ambition to create systems that actually kind of get the grownups in line in a way that facilitates the opportunity for success rather than creating a situation where kids are kind of fighting against the system in order to make it," Lewis said.  

For the last year and a half, Lewis has taken on the newly created role of program supervisor for foster care education at the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. She leads a team on the education side in collaborative work with their counterparts from Children's Administration in the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.  

Lewis's colleague at Children's Administration, Shanna McBride, was previously a social worker for Child Protective Services in Washington, where she worked with teens in group homes and tried to help them graduate from high school. She also experienced first-hand the difficulty of navigating the school system as a parent of two biological children who were on individual education plans, which take into consideration children's unique needs and set educational goals for them. Many children in foster care have special needs that trigger individual education plans.  

Because of these experiences, McBride took a job that allowed her to advocate for foster students' education at Treehouse, a nonprofit started by former social workers to help foster youth graduate at the same rate as their peers. In her six and a half years at Treehouse, she saw the gaps that existed between social workers and schools, and wanted to help them collaborate so students could succeed. In 2014, McBride became the statewide education program manager at Children's Administration.   

"Kids in foster care are kids in our communities," McBride said. "They're kids who are in our schools — their success matters to our communities."   

School-aged children in foster care number roughly 5,250 out of Washington's approximately 1 million students. And each of the state leaders responsible for education and child welfare is in a position to help them through collaboration and data sharing. But they also have to work through practical concerns and spend time coming to agreements on different ways to help these students succeed. 

Washington's Two-Way Data Street 

Washington's foster care legislation and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act broke down many of the policy barriers to sharing data between education and child welfare agencies. Under this new policy framework, Washington school districts appointed foster care liaisons, and the Children's Administration identified five regional contacts to work with them. The two state agencies also established program managers for foster care and listed foster contacts online.  

For the first time, everyone knew who to contact when a student was about to enter foster care and needed to be provided with services including transportation, nutrition and academic support. Schools didn't have to rely on foster parents who notified them of a new child, and social workers no longer had to call the school counselor or the receptionist to find out who to talk with. 

In Spokane Public Schools, Oscar Harris had already been helping vulnerable student populations as a family support and community engagement coordinator. This school year, he became the district's foster care liaison in addition to his other responsibilities. Now he's figuring out his role in working with other organizations efficiently and effectively so they can identify foster care students and provide them the same education opportunities that others have.  

"My ultimate goal is advocating for each individual student, so how can we build a system to make sure we can serve all of our students in a timely manner?" he asked.  

For the last seven years, leaders in the Children's Administration and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction have been discussing a new memorandum of understanding template that would allow them to share data both ways and improve data quality across every system. Despite the amount of time it's taken to figure out the best way to share data, both teams hope to have an agreement in place by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, Lewis said. 

This new template would set the tone throughout the state for how they expect communities to collaborate so they can help students in foster care meet their educational goals and give them the protections they're entitled to by law, according to McBride. It would also help them standardize their agreements and processes. 

Since 2005, 40 child welfare agencies at the local level have entered into memorandums of understanding with about 250 of the state's 295 school districts. With the new template, child welfare agencies and school districts would sign a standardized agreement and add on any local stipulations that are important to them. Along with an agreement, the two agencies are standardizing processes and training staff so they can appropriately negotiate transportation plans, report to the court on students' educational progress and make sure student records are transferred quickly to a new school.  

As they work through this process, state leaders are figuring out what data to share for reporting purposes and for daily decision-making. They're also checking into information technology support and data matching issues that they need to address. And they're considering whether to share data with other groups that support foster students' education outcomes, including the Washington Student Achievement Council and Treehouse.   

Data Sharing and Equity for Foster Students

Treehouse has been pushing for better information sharing at both levels. The nonprofit serves approximately 8,000 foster youth in King County, Tacoma and Spokane. Its staff of education specialists help foster students set educational goals, figure out how to reach them and work with people they know to reach them. Treehouse has succeeded in helping the foster youth they work with graduate at the same rate as their peers. In 2015, 82 percent of students graduated in five years compared to 49 percent of foster youth who didn't work with Treehouse, according to the nonprofit. Its next five-year goal is to expand services to all foster students in the state.  

"Our goal is really equity for kids in foster care," said Dawn Rains, the chief operating officer at Treehouse who took care of two foster boys for just over a year. "Kids deserve every opportunity to achieve at the rate of their peers and go on to live productive lives and pursue dreams."  

But to help them achieve, education specialists need daily and weekly data on their students' attendance, behavior and course progress. They also need records at the end of the semester. They're essentially playing the role of an activist parent in these students' lives every week, but it's hard to act when data isn't easy to come by, Rains said. It would be easier to get data from the state and have standardized memorandums of understanding with school districts instead of spending a lot of time and effort signing different memorandums and tracking down data.   

Both state agencies have told school districts that Treehouse has a right to access education records for students referred to their services because it's a state sub-contractor. And in many cases, they do get access to the data through a signed parental permission form or court order. But Rains would like to see data sharing become routine, systems work well together and data flowing both ways between child welfare and education agencies at each level.  

Rains also wants quick transfers of education records including individual education plans for students who have special needs. Right now, these plans are typically hand-written or typed on a Word document that's not transferred with their other records when students move to a new school. Or if the plan is transferred, the new school district wants to do its own assessment and create a new plan. Rains dreams of a day when a registrar can push a button that instantly gives them access to the students' records, including their individual education plans.  

Current Challenges, Future Plans

Outside of the data sharing agreements, Washington leaders are figuring out how to address other issues in terms of professional development, connectivity and mobility. Professional organizations and conferences don't exist for state foster care education leaders to connect and learn from each other. That's made it harder to collaborate across states and share information, Lewis said. But she still makes the effort and has found it helpful to talk with leaders in states including California, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. She also collaborates with leaders involved in work related to the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act, which serves a similar vulnerable population.   

At the local level, educators on the ground don't have the training they need to analyze the data they're collecting on foster care students and take action on it in real-time to help them. They also don't always have the Internet connectivity to consistently analyze the data. The majority of school districts are in rural areas, and many still have dial-up Internet, Lewis said. Even if they do have the training and the Internet connectivity, kids may change schools again, and they don't stay in one place long enough for educators to intervene and see positive outcomes.  

"If you move a kid three times in 6 months, it doesn't matter what data you collect, it's not applicable anymore," Lewis said.  

While social workers try to place students within the same community, they have no way to tell which school districts serve different foster parents' homes. The average youth in foster care changes home placements three times, and each time they move, they lose about 6 months of academic progress, according to Treehouse. Once they age out of foster care, one in five end up homeless.  

These stats illustrate the urgency behind the work these two agencies and their local counterparts are doing. If they can successfully share and act on data, they may help these students stay in their schools longer and graduate.  

"In the next few years, I hope that we are able to create a baseline of how our kids are doing academically," McBride said, "and we're able to do some real strategic planning statewide to help support our social workers and support our schools so our kids are all progressing on time and to the next grade, ultimately graduating and going on to postsecondary." 

In the third and final part of our series, find out more about the progress California leaders have been making on this journey as they overcome tough challenges.