A student waits in between classes under a shaded arch.
A student waits in between classes under a shaded arch at Oakland Unity High School. Credit: Amir Aziz

The academic outlook for many foster youth—children who are removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse and placed with other families or guardians to raise them—can be bleak. They do poorer on proficiency tests and their chronic absenteeism rates are higher. In 2022, the graduation rate for foster youth was 35%—half that of students who aren’t in the child welfare system.

To help foster students do better in school, OUSD is seeking volunteers for a program that trains adults who can help advocate for these vulnerable youth. Called “education surrogates,” these volunteers can ensure foster youth are having their educational needs met. They take on the role of a parent in special education assessments and meetings, expulsion hearings, and other disciplinary matters, and they help make decisions about school matters affecting a student that a parent would otherwise make. 

Surrogates are assigned if the parents aren’t available, and there’s no extended family or close family friends who can step in. Several times a year, juvenile courts will ask the school district to assign someone.

But this requires that surrogates be available.

“When the district gets appointed to identify an education surrogate, we have to just find somebody to do it. That could really be anybody,” said Jennifer Tam, who oversees foster youth education in OUSD. “My concern with doing that is, I don’t think it should be just anybody. It should be somebody that is wanting to fill that role for a youth who needs it. I would love for them to be somewhat familiar with education.”

The district is hoping to attract community members who are knowledgeable about the education system, especially special education, to become surrogates. About 40% of foster youth in OUSD have individual education plans, which describe the special education supports that a student is entitled to. 

Attorney Tori Porell with the East Bay Children’s Law Office, which represents foster youth in Alameda County, recently put on an information session for interested members of the public, explaining the need for education surrogates in Oakland right now.

“Foster youth have disproportionately poor educational outcomes. They have worse outcomes than any other at-risk subgroup that the state of California collects data for,” Porell said. “But we know that one of the most effective educational interventions is the presence of a committed adult.”

Most foster youth have to move around a lot, from home to home, to different communities and schools, and this instability can have negative impacts on their academic performance. At the end of August, OUSD had 140 foster youth enrolled. At the end of September, it had 170.

The foster youth population in Oakland Unified also largely intersects with the population of students with individual education plans, and moving around often can mean that students aren’t getting the support they need, or are behind on assessments. An education surrogate can step in and ensure that students are being tested. 

Students lose about 4 to 6 months of schooling every time they change schools, Porell said. In Oakland, 40% of foster youth in high schools have individual education plans, and more than a third of them have changed schools four times or more, according to data presented by the district’s Foster Youth Advisory Committee

“The big issue that we see with foster youth, especially our older foster youth that we’re working more closely with, is the lack of engagement into school,” Tam said. “We have kids where this is their fourth high school in two years, and it’s difficult to keep readjusting. What ends up happening is sometimes it’s just hard to want to wake up and go to school.”

And when such a large proportion of foster youth also have disabilities that need to be supported, the instability can further cause foster youth to check out of school, advocates said. 

The goal of OUSD’s surrogate program is to create a pool of people who can be called on to step in when needed. They can’t be employees of the school district, group home staff, county social workers, or probation officers. Instead, they must be someone outside of the child welfare system. Parents who have children in special education and are familiar with the process, or retired district staff are ideal, Porell said. Education surrogates may be asked to help a few times a year. 

The number of foster children in Oakland schools has decreased by about half over the past five years, but not because there are fewer foster youth entering the system. More than half of Alameda County foster youth find placements outside of the county, largely because the cost of living is so expensive here that fewer and fewer people have an extra bedroom to take in a foster child, Tam said. But Oakland Unified still handles the most foster youth of any district in Alameda County. 

Those who are interested in becoming an education surrogate can contact Tam, jennifer.tam@ousd.org.

Beyond education surrogates, there’s also a need for more court-appointed special advocates, or CASAs. Those individuals act as mentors, advocate on behalf of the youth, and make sure they’re receiving education support, mental health support, and be a voice for the child in court hearings, said Bre’Jaynae Joiner, who helps lead recruitment efforts for Alameda County advocates. 

During the pandemic, more people volunteered as CASAs, a one-year commitment, but as the pandemic has waned, so has interest, Joiner said. 

“Now we have an influx of youth who need support, and a low number of CASAs who are able to come in and support,” she added. “While [youth] are in foster care, they may have a lot of different folks who are supporting them, like a social worker, or a lawyer. But all those folks are being paid. CASAs are not paid—they’re volunteering their time and commitment. They serve a purpose as a permanent positive adult figure in a youth’s life.”

Court-appointed special advocates must be at least 21 years old and have a California driver’s license. Right now, there are 30 youth on the waitlist for a court-appointed advocate, Joiner said. Most are teenagers, and there’s a high need for advocates who speak Spanish and have experience working with children on the autism spectrum.

Those who are interested can sign up with CASA of Alameda County to attend a virtual info session. The next session is Nov. 2, and they happen every two weeks. After that, prospective advocates will complete an application, do an interview, and complete a 30-hour training before taking on the new role.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.