Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Scant gains from DSHS foster youth ed services program

by Matt Rosenberg November 27th, 2012

A special services-based initiative for foster youth in K-12 public schools in Washington that was created by the legislature in 2006 isn’t correlated with improved academic outcomes for the thousands of students it has served, according to a new report for lawmakers delivered by the state’s own in-house policy analysis unit. The report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy on the Education Advocacy Program (EAP) of the state’s Department of Social and Health Services found that compared to an equal number of similarly at-risk foster children who weren’t in the program, the high school graduation rates and grade point averages of 2,437 selected students who did use it between 2006 and 2011 were not any better.

The EAP group of foster child students did show greater progress in reducing unexcused absences from school compared to the control group, and had fewer multiple moves to new schools in a given year. If those trends hold it may bode well for them in the future, and the study adds that over time it is possible their graduation rates and grades may improve compared to the control group.

Foster children in grades K-12 in Washington are three to four times more likely than the overall K-12 student population to have behavioral, health or learning disabilities, the report notes. The state contracts with a Seattle non-profit called Treehouse to provide a range of services for foster children enrolled in K-12 public schools in Washington to help them overcome challenges to academic success such as periodic homelessness, frequent moves between foster homes, special education needs which aren’t always well met, disciplinary problems, and more.

EAP services provided include assistance in engaging at a new school, recovering credits from other schools, plus assisting in disciplinary proceedings and shepherding necessary school resources for state-required Individual Education Plans for foster children in special education programs. The bulk of the 3,500 total students served by EAP since the 2006-07 school year received specialized help for one or two years.

But this first hard look at outcomes data for the program shows that on key performance measurements of grade point average and graduation rate, the foster children getting EAP services through Washington DSHS aren’t doing any better than other foster children with closely similar academic risk profiles, who didn’t participate in EAP. The study says they were carefully selected for comparison purposes after state lawmakers last year called for an evaluation of the program’s benefits.

The report from WSIPP found that EAP students had a cumulative Grade Point Average of 1.88 in their base year of special services and 1.83 in the follow-up year, while students in the non-EAP or “comparison” group had cumulative GPAs of 1.9 in their base year and 1.93 the next year. The high school graduation rates for foster child students who had been enrolled in EAP was 37 percent – versus 41 percent for similarly at-risk non-EAP “comparison” group foster children.

On softer outcome measures, EAP did figure into some positive correlations. Unexcused absences declined from an average of 2.94 in the base year for EAP enrollees to 2.56 in the follow-up year while for “comparison” group students they grew from an average of 1.56 in the base year to 2.29 in the follow-up year. The difference between the two groups in that Year Two outcome was not statistically significant, the study says, but the trend was a decline in unexcused absences for EAP students and a rise for the control group.

Another indicator assessed was repeated changes in school of attendance within an academic year, which is considered a significant risk factor for students, and one to which foster children are especially prone. The study found that in the year following referral to EAP, 11 percent of participating students had two or more school changes versus 15 percent for the “comparison” group.

The report says more time may be needed to assess whether EAP improves GPA and graduation rate outcomes for at-risk foster youth versus counterparts who have not used the program’s services.

The Education Advocacy Program received $650,000 per year in state funding from fiscal years 2007 through 2009, rising to $995,000 for fiscal 2010, according to a 2010 overview from WSIPP.

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