Elk Grove Unified has dramatically reduced suspensions and expulsions of foster youth by applying the principles of the recently passed law, Assembly Bill 1909, long before the bill was written.
The new law, which goes into effect in January, requires districts to notify social workers when a foster child enters one of their schools and to contact the child’s attorney if he or she faces a possible expulsion hearing. Unlike most children, foster children generally lack a parent to advocate for them if they get into trouble. They often shift from home to home, and depend on their social worker and court-appointed attorney, who serve as their advocates and typically know them best.
Elk Grove Unified, located in Sacramento County, educates about 500 foster children each year. In 2009–10, the district issued 1,504 suspensions, almost three suspensions for each foster child. (Students who are suspended multiple times are counted as multiple suspensions.) After instituting its notification policy in 2010–11, the number of suspensions fell to 464, a 69 percent plunge. Expulsions dropped from 16 to 10. The decrease has continued, with 362 suspensions and only two expulsions in 2011–12.
Kim Parker, program specialist/educational liaison for Foster Youth Services for Elk Grove Unified, began the program after Ann Quirk, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center of California in Sacramento, asked Parker what she could do to be notified if one of her clients got an extended suspension. The notification process led to more interaction between school staff and the children’s advocates.
“Just one simple little thing that we changed, yet it became such a positive turnaround to help youth,” Parker said.
Parker also credited the district’s overall effort to reduce suspensions and the initiative three years ago of Michael Jones. In charge of discipline at Laguna Creek High School at the time, Jones started an advisory class for all foster youth in the school, grades 9–12.
“This let the kids see they weren’t alone,” Jones said. “They could walk into the room and not be judged because they were all in the same situation.” The class also gave the older students an opportunity to mentor the younger ones, and for the younger students to grasp the importance of doing well in school for their future when they would become emancipated.
Jones now teaches advisory (or homeroom) classes at most of the district’s high schools and has a nonprofit, Courageous Connection, dedicated to helping foster youth. He has connected teachers and staff members at the high schools to the attorneys and social workers who represent the foster youth.
“Lawyers and social workers didn’t feel they could come to school and talk to school personnel. And the school staff didn’t feel like they could talk to the lawyers and social workers. We’ve broken down that wall,” Jones said.
In addition, other students at the high school started noticing the plight of foster youth. They raised money so that the students who followed the rules were able to go to school sports events and proms. “We started with a tiny snowball, pushed it down the hill, and it gained momentum and is still going well,” Jones said.
Elk Grove is setting an example for the nation, said Daniel Heimpel, executive director of Fostering Media Connections, a San Francisco-based journalism nonprofit dedicated to improving foster care.
“What Elk Grove is doing is smart,” he said. “In the absence of a parent, the social worker should have access to the kind of information that will help them get kids through school. This idea, largely born in California and forward-thinking districts like Elk Grove, is behind new proposed federal policy – the Uninterrupted Scholars Act – which would make educational records available to social workers across the country.”
Carey Sommer, now 20, took part in the advisory class at Laguna Creek High School. “I can definitely advocate for Mike’s program and the involvement of social workers and lawyers,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Mike and his program, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Sommer said he started in the program when he was 16 and wasn’t doing well in school. He was encouraged to continue his education and entered a trade school, the Institute of Technology in Citrus Heights. He now works full-time as a refrigerator technician in New Hampshire, supporting himself. “I’m a living example of what that involvement means,” he said.
When foster children see that someone cares about their situation, it makes them feel connected to the school and gives them hope, Jones said. Last year, a young woman who is now a junior had some horrible things happen during a visit to her biological family.
“She was distraught at school and I and her teacher knew that she was going to blow out,” Jones said. “I contacted her lawyer, who almost instantly called the young lady.” The girl was surprised because she didn’t think anyone was going to care.
“I’ve gotten e-mails from teachers, counselors, the vice principal that say [that intervention] completely changed how she behaved on campus.” She realized, Jones said, that the adults on campus did notice things other than the fact that she was getting into trouble.