Improving Educational Outcomes for Foster Children in Marion County

About This Project

“It’s impossible for any one agency or system to improve the educational outcomes of foster children by themselves.”— Jesse Hahnel, Founder and Director, FosterEd

Children and youth in foster care face a unique set of educational challenges, including frequent school transfers, a lack of communication between public schools and child welfare agencies, and a lack of stable academic support and guidance. FosterEd is an initiative of the National Center for Youth Law, a national non-profit working to improve the lives of at-risk children, that improves the academic outcomes of foster children by ensuring they are supported by educational champions and strengthened by education teams. Jesse Hahnel, an attorney and a former public school teacher, founded FosterEd in 2009 and launched a pilot project in Marion County, Indiana the following year. FosterEd worked across government agencies, forming a leadership team consisting of representatives of the Juvenile Court, public school system, and child welfare agency. By late 2011, FosterEd’s Educational Liaisons had worked with 44 foster children in Marion County and resolved 76 unmet educational “needs,” ranging from behavioral to attendance issues. Based on early successes, in 2012, Indiana created a publicly-funded, statewide FosterEd program, and the Educational Liaisons became employees of the Department of Child Services (DCS). By the end of 2012, FosterEd: Indiana’s 17 Education Liaisons had worked directly with 748 foster children, identifying 1,536 unmet educational needs and resolving 89 percent of needs in closed cases.

Jesse’s experience as a teacher, a Senior Analyst at the KIPP Foundation, and an attorney and Skadden Foundation Fellow at the National Center for Youth Law shaped his approach to working across sectors to achieve success for FosterEd.

Balanced Motivations

York City. Many of the students in his classrooms were at-risk, and he saw becoming an education attorney as one way to improve the outcomes of underprivileged students. He began his studies at Harvard Law School, then transferred to Stanford Law School. At Stanford, he worked collaboratively with Professor William Koski, the director of Stanford’s Youth and Education Law Project, a clinical program in which professors and students provide legal representation to disadvantaged children and their families. Jesse’s experiences working both within the educational system and advocating for education reform have reinforced his belief in the need for what he calls “interagency” collaboration.

Intellectual Thread

Jesse’s in-depth knowledge of the complex ecosystem contributing to the academic success of foster children was instrumental in the success of FosterEd. At Stanford Law School, Professor Koski encouraged Jesse to be well versed in subjects such as federal funding, research, and data, since this knowledge would be essential to Jesse’s ability to incentivize different stakeholders and leverage funding. The two co-authored “The Past, Present, and Possible Futures of ‘Education Finance Reform’ Litigation,” published by the American Education Finance Association. Jesse has authored several other publications, including “Foster Youth: Left Behind by the No Child Left Behind Act?” His data expertise, fostered at the KIPP Foundation, strengthened his in-depth understanding of the education outcomes of foster children.

Contextual Intelligence

Jesse’s time as a public school teacher and at the KIPP Foundation played a significant part in his ability to create relationships with and between different parties in the FosterEd collaboration. Teaching gave Jesse credibility when working with schools in Marion County, while his experience at the KIPP Foundation showed him how a non-profit could achieve reform by creating a program that could be independently implemented and sustained by a host. His work at KIPP also showed him the importance of data in implementing change. While at KIPP, he spearheaded a change in thinking regarding data-sharing with schools. At the time, KIPP wanted schools to provide data pertaining to their students. It was difficult to motivate the schools to share this data since it lacked tangible and immediate benefits for the schools. By repackaging the data that the schools submitted to KIPP, and importing data files into a web interface, Jesse and his colleagues created value: they allowed the schools to look at a child’s progress over time, pinpointing educational goals, strengths and weaknesses. This emphasis on data was essential to Jesse’s work at FosterEd, which strives to make real-time data readily accessible to partnering schools and social workers through inter-agency data-sharing and case-management systems.

Transferable Skills

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Jesse studied mathematics, and participated in organizations working toward economic equity. His data-interpretation skills, developed throughout his academic and professional career, proved valuable when measuring the impact of increased collaboration between Indiana’s court system, child welfare agency, and education system. Jesse’s project management skills, fostered during his time leading KIPP’s Research and Evaluation Team, were instrumental in delegating responsibilities and coordinating between different agencies. His strategic planning skills helped him to identify potential partners such as David Harris, CEO at the Mind Trust. His training as an attorney helps him interpret and draft legislation. FosterEd recently led the effort leading California to become the first state to add foster youth to its education accountability framework.

Share a vision of success

Before deciding whether to work in a state, Jesse and his team perform a six-month investigative process, meeting and speaking with the state education agency, child welfare agency, and court system to ensure they are committed to improving the educational outcomes of foster youth through increased collaboration. This six-month process ensures that all participants understand FosterEd’s goals and are committed to achieving them. During initial meetings, participants discuss criteria for success and establish how each agency will contribute to the project. Although each sector views the issues of foster education through a different lens, the central goal is to collaboratively create a sustainable program that will improve the educational outcomes of foster children.

Establish a governance structure

Once FosterEd has selected a state to partner with, it typically commits to working in that state for three to five years. Work is guided by a state leadership team, the core members of which are the state education, child welfare, and judicial agencies. State leadership teams may also include representatives from the attorney general’s office, state board of education, governor’s office, legislature, and research community. As the Project Lead, FosterEd facilitates the work, while the state leadership team serves as an advisory board. FosterEd must ensure that each agency in the collaboration will perform pre-determined duties, such as asking social workers to identify foster children with educational difficulties. The state leadership team meets, on average, on a monthly basis for the first six months, then quarterly thereafter.

Communicate the interdependency of each sector

One of the first tasks for the state leadership team is to identify a location in that state to serve as a pilot for a statewide program. FosterEd then works with local agencies in the pilot location to implement the state’s FosterEd pilot. Implementation requires an enormous amount of communication between social workers, Educational Liaisons, teachers and school staff, foster parents, relative caregivers, CASAs and other stakeholders. Jesse emphasized the importance of communication in the collaborative process and the importance of having a solid working relationship with individuals inside each agency as vital.

Tell the story

Monitoring and documenting progress, and sharing that data widely across partners is important to FosterEd’s success. In each state in which it operates, FosterEd employs an external party to evaluate the work. In the case of Indiana, independent evaluator Stephanie Yoder from Beasley Yoder Consulting was hired to produce an extensive report, compiling data on educational strengths and needs, and how they were met and quantified. All participants then used this evaluation and its recommendations to inform the statewide implementation of the project.

Commit to information sharing

FosterEd embraces a data-driven approach: data is used for program planning, evaluation, and improvements to the program. FosterEd provides information to stakeholders on the ground, and helps districts identify which children are in foster care. Working with Sundaram LLC, FosterEd developed an educational case management system. The web interface allowed education liaisons, social workers and court staff to track the educational progress of each child. The system also allowed the program to be effectively managed, helping FosterEd to make programmatic decisions, such as adding more liaisons or increasing trainings on common challenges. It also allowed FosterEd staff to determine if a change in education policy would provide a solution for a certain educational need. Sharing information is also essential to ensuring the educational progress of each child – a foster child’s “case” is only “closed” when all of their educational goals have been monitored for a period of time and the issue at hand is resolved. This requires open communication between all participants.

Recruit a powerful sponsor or champion

Jesse repeatedly mentioned the importance of leveraging the connections of the people supporting FosterEd. He recognized that The Mind Trust has a deep connection with FosterEd’s public agency partners as well as the philanthropic community. He partnered with David Harris, president and CEO of the Mind Trust, to facilitate a number of interagency conversations with school superintendents, members of the state department of education, and the chief counsel to the child welfare agency. Since Jesse was based in California, and commuted back and forth to Indiana from 2009 – 2012, The Mind Trust’s experience on the ground and credibility with Indiana-based institutions was vital to the collaboration.

In Marion County, Indiana, FosterEd’s Educational Liaisons worked with multiple agencies to ensure students in foster care received the educational opportunities they needed to succeed in school. In 2012, after a successful implementation of the pilot, the State of Indiana agreed to create a state-wide policy and program based on the pilot, and the Educational Liaisons became employees of the Department of Child Services (DCS). The evaluation report states that “evidence suggests FosterEd is shifting the culture and conversation such that Foster Case Managers (FCMs), parents, caregivers, school staff, and agency administrators are increasingly focused on ensuring foster children succeed in school.”

  • FosterEd has spread to other states; in addition to Indiana, the initiative is operating in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. FosterEd launched a pilot in Santa Cruz County, California, in February of 2013, and the Educational Liaisons have supported over 200 foster children in the area.
  • In California, FosterEd has partnered with Goalbook, a private company to develop new, secure, on-line case management and teaming technologies for foster youth. FosterEd is also working with WestEd, an education research firm, to produce reports documenting the educational outcomes of students in foster care, which are then used to drive policy discussions at the state and local level.