This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A decade ago, the foster system in Cincinnati, Ohio, had the same issues as virtually all other foster care providers around the country: Children in care tended to lag in school, with more missed days than their peers, lower academic achievement, and a harder time graduating high school by age 18.
In 2007, key players crafted a plan — it’s called Kids in School Rule! — that focuses on school issues with steps to intervene as soon as a child enters the foster care system. The city’s juvenile court system, legal aid society, family services agency and the school district all signed on.
And the approach has produced results: A 95 percent graduation rate over the last seven years — besting the district’s rate — with improved attendance across all grades, fewer disciplinary referrals, and more students remaining in the school they attended before entering the foster care system.
“Our numbers looked just like everybody else’s when we started in 2007-08. We looked as abysmal as everybody else,” said Carla Guenthner, juvenile court chief magistrate. With the plan in place, “there are a lot of people paying attention. We’ve been able to raise awareness and helped prioritize the needs of these young people.”
Key interventions include:
A staffer in every school — a school counselor, school social worker, assistant principal, or some other professional — who monitors attendance and performance of foster children enrolled there and intervenes at an early stage of trouble.
“Barrier-free” enrollment practices and an emphasis on school-placement stability.
Extra support for seniors to boost their graduation prospects.
A focus on early-grade elementary students to ensure they meet the district’s 3rd-grade reading guarantee. Students receive support so that they are on track for reading success by the end of 3rd grade.
The project does extensive, ongoing professional development reaching juvenile court magistrates, caseworkers, court-appointed advocates, foster parents, and school personnel. There’s a Judicial Bench Card for Education Success to guide magistrates in decision-making and a Learning Partner Dashboard online to share student-specific data.
Students in foster care in the Cincinnati schools still lag behind their general-population peers in attendance and academic performance, and efforts now are focused on those issues.
“We know where the deficits are and where the strengths are,” said Guenthner.
“It has taken a lot of commitment, time and resources from our partners. What our school leadership said was: ‘What is good for children in foster care is good for all of our students.’”