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City, District move to improve services for students involved with child welfare

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The city and School District are moving to provide more intense and coordinated services for nearly one in five city students — 17 percent — who have been involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system, officials said Tuesday.

They plan to place 27 additional social workers in schools that serve high numbers of these students, work harder to coordinate community-based services for them and their families, and provide attendance officers to keep track of absentees, said Karyn Lynch, the School District’s chief of student support services.

The officials released a report showing that these students need special education services at much higher rates than their peers and that their outcomes — attendance, test scores, grade promotion, and graduation rates — are poorer.

However, it also found that students in these categories who attend more selective District schools or charters tend to do better, mirroring the outcomes of their peers in these schools.

"We’re going to try to get them into the best placement for each individual student," Lynch said. "We don’t want them to take the default school — we want them to be actively involved in selecting where they will attend. We are working together to identify a system and processes that will do just that."

The report found that these students are geographically dispersed across the city, but are concentrated now in neighborhood high schools and alternative schools, rather than special admission schools or charters.

Nearly half the city’s high schools, or 47 percent, have either at least 100 of these students, or have more than 20 percent of their students in this category. For some smaller schools, both are true.

This creates "urgent challenges" for these schools.

"It is important to point out that it is also possible that the resources of such schools fall short of what is available in many Traditional Charter, Special Admission, and Citywide Schools, thus enhancing the risk for continued disparity in educational achievement," the report notes. "Regardless of the underlying causes, understanding and acknowledging this disparity can allow [the Department of Human Services] and [the School District] to effectively provide resources to meet the needs of students with child welfare and juvenile justice histories."

The report studied several thousand students during the 2011-12 school year and did a more thorough follow-up, called a "quality service review," with 11 of them to delve deeper into their histories and the factors that effected their outcomes. It was jointly produced by the District, DHS, the Philadelphia Youth Network and the Policy Lab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

"Poor educational outcomes of youth involved with these systems can be due to many factors, but are likely influenced by exposure to adverse childhood experiences including poverty, toxic stress, and trauma," the report said. "Given the complex needs of youth involved with various public systems, it is imperative for information sharing to take place among professionals serving these youth to ensure that services are aligned, adequate, and appropriate."

The report notes that there has been some improvement over the years in the continuing effort to improve communication and coordination between different systems and agencies in order to improve services, but concludes that "due to barriers such as limitations in capacity, inconsistent levels of knowledge regarding policies and procedures, and concerns about privacy, cross-system information sharing often does not occur."

The report found that as students get older, the likelihood of coming into contact with these systems increases. Fully 20 percent of high school students have had DHS or juvenile justice involvement, the report found.

For both students who have never been involved and those who have been involved in these systems, proficiency rates on the PSSA test decline between 8th and 11th grade. But for students with DHS or juvenile justice contact who attend traditional charter schools, proficiency rates increase between those two grades, bucking the trend.

But relatively few students with this background attend charters or special admission District schools.

This effort will "place services where needed to serve the largest number of students," said Lynch, "but also individualize the process for students so that they know their opportunities and are seeking the best opportunities" for K-12 education.

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