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Editorial: Need grows to aid foster kids, homeless students

State lawmakers must make investments that improve their educational outcomes and futures.

By The Herald Editorial Board

In the 10 years between the 2008-09 and 2017-18 school years, the number of homeless students counted by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction nearly doubled to 40,365, about 3.5 percent of the state’s student population, from pre-K to 12th grade.

The number that year included more than 3,700 who are the responsibility of school districts within Snohomish County, including 1,266 at Everett schools, 591 at Edmonds schools, 419 at Marysville schools and 360 at Mukilteo schools, as well as smaller — but still significant — numbers within the other districts. Another count is coming soon but will likely find the trend has only continued in the last year.

The majority of those students — more invisible than most of the adult homelessness we see — are “couch-surfing” or otherwise sharing housing with the families of fellow students or others; but significant numbers are living in hotels and motels, in shelters or are unsheltered, living in vehicles, trailers, campgrounds and abandoned buildings.

In addition, there are also about 10,000 children in foster care statewide who attend school.

Or, rather, are trying to attend school.

The traumas and upheaval experienced by children in foster care or without stable housing often result in tardiness and absenteeism, poor academic outcomes and ultimately a far lower graduation rate than their peers. From OSPI’s most recent statistics, 36 percent of homeless students were reported chronically absent, compared to about 15 percent of their peers; less than 59 percent had earned a diploma after four years of high school, compared to nearly 83 percent completion rate for the rest of the student population. The dropout rate among homeless students was more than 33 percent, compared to 14 percent for their peers.

It’s a trend that state educators, child advocates, lawmakers and others have been tracking in recent years, with the goal — as work continues to improve educational outcomes and graduation rates for all students — to bring foster care children and homeless students equal with their peers by 2027 to a 90 percent graduation rate.

Among the more immediate remedies that would aid foster children, as state lawmakers consider a supplemental budget this session, would be the addition of at least 20 state caseworkers with the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said Dawn Rains, policy and strategy officer for Treehouse, an advocacy group for children in foster care, started in 1988 by social workers.

The state is mandated in a class-action settlement to reduce the number of children each caseworker is responsible for to 18, but many now are working with caseloads in the mid-20s to 30, Rains said. With that many, the caseworkers often have to concentrate on the highest priorities of safety, health, emotional issues and work to reunite children with families.

“They don’t have the time or bandwidth to focus on educational outcomes,” Rains said.

But in the longer term, Rains and others are asking state lawmakers to adopt legislation in the House and Senate that would continue the work of a state panel to develop and implement plans to bring foster children and homeless students equal with their peers in terms of educational achievement, with special attention on eliminating racial and ethnic gaps in educational outcomes.

The legislation — House Bill 2711 and Senate Bill 6511— would convene representatives from state agencies and nonprofits to evaluate student needs, services and outcomes, prepare recommendations and biannual reports to the governor and Legislature, starting this fall.

Both bills are advancing. The House Bill was passed unanimously out of the education committee Thursday, and a public hearing was well received in the Senate’s education committee earlier in the week.

A report from the DCYF last month on Project Education Impact, detailed more recommendations for state agencies and the Legislature with the same goals. Among them:

Eliminate disciplinary action for foster children and homeless students that removes them from the classroom, and eliminate detention for noncriminal offenses, such as truancy and running away.

Begin preparatory work with foster children at age 14 to transition to adult life, rather than waiting six months before they age out of the foster care system.

Expand work to recruit and retain more foster homes to increase their availability and end the practice of warehousing some foster children in motels because of a lack of available foster homes.

Establish a transportation fund to reduce the number of foster or homeless children having to move from school to school.

Appoint advocates for individual students to assist with school transitions.

Expand the availability of stable longer-term housing for homeless youths.

And strengthen existing programs to provide training, navigation, financial aid, housing and other supports so those students can see post-secondary education as a goal they can reach. Among the programs is the Washington Student Achievement Council’s Passport to Careers program, which provides individualized guidance toward college, apprenticeships and other career programs.

There’s no shortage of investments that the state and its taxpayers need to make in coming years to resolve pressing issues. Yet few such investments offer the same opportunities for improved outcomes than providing support, guidance and stable homes to children so they can make the most of their education and their lives.

“If we don’t address these problems here we know we’re going to have problems (later) with homelessness and on the juvenile justice side,” Rains said.

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