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Students in foster care face 'invisible achievement gap,' study says

California students in foster care do worse academically and have a higher dropout rate than their statewide peers, study says.

October 13, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe
  • Foster youths' high school dropout rate in 2009-10 was 8%, more than twice the rate of their statewide peers.
Foster youths' high school dropout rate in 2009-10 was 8%, more than… (Christina House / For the…)

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.

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