Educational Advocacy Program
In 2007, due to the growing complexity and challenges of advocating for educational services to address the severe learning needs of foster children, SFCASA developed and implemented the Educational Advocacy Program. Today Hannah Nerenhausen, Educational Advocacy Coordinator, serves as an in-house specialist with extensive knowledge of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), local alternative schools, educational services available to learning-disabled students, and the urgent and complex needs of foster children and youth. The following year, under the Coordinator’s direction, SFCASA launched the Advocacy for Educational Services Program.
The goal of the Advocacy for Educational Services Program is to reverse the grim statistics regarding foster youth’s substandard educational attainment by:
- Acting as champions for foster children’s educational needs through the work of SFCASA volunteer advocates and our designated Educational Advocacy Coordinator, who will consult on specific issues and complex cases with both the volunteer advocates and the San Francisco Unified School District.
- Increasing the number of SFCASA volunteer advocates qualified to serve as Education Surrogates in client children’s educational decision-making through specialized in-service, continuing education classes.
- Enhancing foster children’s success in school by increasing their access to specialized educational services tailored to their individual learning needs and by ensuring those services are delivered.
- Promoting city-wide policy improvements in the educational achievement of foster children by collaborating with public and non-profit organizations, serving on steering committees and task forces, and presenting to public school administrators and teachers.
In order to be equipped to advocate specifically for the educational needs of foster children, volunteers participate in a continuing education course entitled, Educational Advocacy 101—What CASA Volunteers Need to Know. In classes taught by Hannah Nerenhausen, Educational Advocacy Coordinator for SFCASA, with guest representatives from SFUSD and the San Francisco Human Services Agency, volunteers acquire a foundation of educational advocacy, covering topics such as: educational rights, special education, school discipline, college options and working with school staff and administrators. This class is required for all SFCASA volunteers recently assigned to a case.
Once trained, volunteers review their foster child’s school records, establish regular communication with the foster child’s school regarding academic progress or behavioral concerns, interview counselors, therapists and social workers, attend teacher conferences, and make recommendations to the court regarding the child’s educational needs.
By having on staff a full-time Educational Advocacy Coordinator, SFCASA volunteers are able to seek immediate guidance regarding complicated cases. The Coordinator also consults for teachers and administrators within SFUSD, a practice that is expected to be expanded in 2012. These targeted and sustained efforts ensure that San Francisco’s foster children are receiving the appropriate education they deserve.
When no family member is able to represent a child’s best academic interests, an Educational Surrogate can authorize and ensure that a foster child receives a comprehensive evaluation in order to determine the need for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and special education services.
To prepare SFCASA volunteers for the role of Educational Surrogate, our professional staff offers continuing education courses several times a year on pressing educational issues. These courses include The IEP Process presented by a representative from Support for Families of Children of Disabilities, which provides a comprehensive review of special education laws, services and the IEP process; and School Discipline presented by a staff attorney from Legal Services for Children, which informs SFCASA volunteers on children’s rights regarding school disciplinary procedures. Volunteers are required to complete 12 hours annually of in-service education. Those volunteers who complete education-related in-service training and are assigned to a client child who needs an Educational Surrogate will be encouraged to perform this specialized role.
All SFCASA volunteer advocates, including those who are Educational Surrogates, are expected to oversee the educational well-being of their clients. Through their detailed knowledge of the individual child, volunteers ensure that foster children are receiving essential educational services, such as targeted therapies to remedy developmental delays, after-school activities and free tutoring.
Especially important are the special education needs of foster children who may be learning disabled. Volunteer advocates will request, at minimum, an annual IEP meeting and a tri-annual re-evaluation regarding special education eligibility. They will also attend IEP meetings and, when authorized, will sign (or decline to sign) the Plan.
Some of the educational needs that SFCASA volunteers handle include appropriate school and grade placement, intervention regarding attendance problems, creation and implementation of a behavior plan, tutoring or supplemental services (homework club, after school care or summer school), reliable transportation to and from school, and an alternate plan to complete high school. Without the appropriate evaluation and provision of necessary educational services, San Francisco’s foster children simply do not have a fair chance to succeed.
Through the Advocacy for Educational Services Program, SFCASA staff and volunteers collaborate with various community partners including SFUSD, San Francisco Family & Juvenile Court, San Francisco Human Services Agency, Juvenile Probation Department, Foster Youth Services, City College of San Francisco, Independent Living Skills Program and Legal Services for Children. These organizations work together to improve educational attainment among foster children.
One continuing concern is the effective implementation of AB 490, which came into effect in 2004. The law requires child welfare agencies to consider how school placement is impacted when changing a child’s foster care placement. It also affirms foster youths’ right to stay in their school placement until the end of the school year when their foster care changes; entitles foster youth to enroll in school without delay (regardless of missing records, lack of immunizations or inability to follow other common enrollment procedures); demands that educational records of foster youth be transferred within two working days; and states that foster youth must not be penalized for absences related to court-ordered activities. The SFCASA Educational Advocacy Coordinator trains community partners on the changing laws regarding foster children’s educational rights and works to make city-wide policy improvements by serving on steering committees and task forces.