In 2017, in partnership with the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, the Multi-Agency Alliance for Children (MAAC) began an educational coordination pilot called LEADS (Learn, Educate, Achieve, Dream, Succeed) with the goal of continuing the work of Project Graduate to increase high school graduation rates for students in foster care in Fulton and DeKalb counties—the counties where Atlanta sits. When LEADS started there, feedback from students was sought. As a result of youth input, a hypothesis was developed that students needed more than just tutoring to reach their academic goals. Often, what kept a student from succeeding in the classroom had less to do with navigating academics and more to do with what impacts their lives outside of the classroom.
The path to high school graduation is daunting for most students. Balancing demands of school with all the activities and events on top of the roller coaster of emotions we know are part of adolescent brain development is tumultuous at best. Layer on top of that the unique challenges youth in foster care face: multiple moves, separation from family and community, lack of a support network and many, many unknowns, and it’s easy to see why high school graduation can almost seem impossible.
LEADS’ program direction developed through that initial understanding of challenges, strong knowledge of adolescent brain development, and practice of trauma-responsive care. They designed a program that strategically and urgently addressed those challenges impacting students in foster care and placed focus on three specific areas: placement stability, connection to adult supports, and connection to school.
Placement stability greatly impacts educational stability. We have known for years that when a student in foster care is moved, they can often lose months of school. While minimizing moves is crucial, putting students in their best placements is also important. LEADS works to support placements, and when placement stability cannot be achieved, they work to secure educational stability, advocating to keep students at their own schools or if a school move is necessary, waiting for a natural break in the school schedule.
LEADS also works to connect students with adults that can support their educational goals. While students in foster care have many adults in their lives, few if any are tasked with focusing on the students’ educational and long-term goals. This person can help to motivate them to achieve academic success, connect them to resources, and teach them life skills needed to succeed.
Lastly, LEADS has focused on supporting connections to the school and community whether that’s through participation in extracurricular activities or attending events, we have realized that connection provides motivation, hope, and excitement and often, a reason to go to school and do well. We know through the Youth Thrive Framework from the Center for the Study of Social Policy that these kinds of activities also support healthy risk taking, further supporting well-being and resiliency.
LEADS served over 300 youth during the program’s first year, including 31 students in 12th grade. 80% of 12th graders enrolled with LEADS graduated in 2018. Just like the LEADS coordinators were supporting students and connecting them to resources, many community partners supported MAAC and LEADS and connected them to community and school specific needs. And while these examples are from a program and agency already serving youth in foster care, individuals and community groups can also play a part in supporting educational success for students in foster care by:
- Supporting funding for scholarships for extra-curricular activities and participation in school events.
- Advocating for placement stability whenever possible, and when that’s not possible, advocating for educational stability.
- Volunteering with or supporting mentoring groups that work with students in foster care.
- Supporting foster families with gift cards to local restaurants and gas stations.
Our students in foster care have hopes and dreams for amazing futures and we can all play a role in helping them get there.