Learn More – Education

Foster youth can face a myriad of educational barriers, challenges and hurdles during their elementary, middle, high school and college years on their path to higher education and a career.

To Foster Change is a social impact initiative of PBS SoCal, aimed at inspiring change in the realities and life outcomes of Southern California’s foster youth. Learn more about the work we do through community engagement and powerful storytelling.


Foster youth can face a myriad of educational barriers, challenges and hurdles during their elementary, middle, high school and college years on their path to higher education and a career. As a result, they need stability in home and school life, peer relationships and family as well as mentors to keep them motivated and on track.

  • 70% report to high school counselors they have plans to go to college.
  • Up to 71% in either kinship or guardianship care are most likely to graduate while 35% in group homes are least likely to graduate.
  • 65% change schools 7 or more times in K-12.
  • 58% graduate high school, while 3% graduate college.

What factors or challenges can dramatically impact a foster youth’s overall experience and success in the foster care system?

  • Frequent school changes
  • Mental health issues
  • Learning challenges
  • Lack of educational resources
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Difficulty of foster youth and families in navigating school bureaucracy

How have foster youth been performing in the educational system in Southern California over the last several years?

In 2013, a groundbreaking report from WestEd and the Stuart Foundation—titled The Invisible Achievement Gap—linked data from the California Departments of Education and Social Services to provide a picture of how foster youth were faring in California’s education system. Later, a follow-up to the first report established that foster youth are more likely to be enrolled in the state’s lowest performing school districts and that greater placement instability was tied to lower academic performance.

What is the achievement gap? How does it have an impact on foster youth?

The achievement gap reports on children in the foster care system who often have specialized education needs that go unrecognized and unmet, leading them to fall behind their peers in terms of academic achievement. Younger, middle-aged and even older students in foster care have a distinctly different demographic profile than other students.

Advocates agree that several obstacles contribute to the achievement gap experienced by students in foster care.

School instability and other disruptions are among the factors that make learning difficult for foster youth. According to the Invisible Achievement Gap Report, more than a third of foster youth in the state attended more than one school during a school year. And almost 10% of foster students attended three or more schools during a school year––a rate nine times that of their peers who were not in foster care.

According to a recent study by the Invisible Achievement Gap report, statistics show:

  • Students in foster care are three times more likely to be African American than the statewide student population.
  • Foster youth students are also two times more likely to have a disability, and five times more likely to have emotional issues.
  • Students in foster care are also older for their grade level and have a higher risk of dropping out.
  • Student in foster care have much lower rates of school stability, transferring between schools more frequently than their peers.
  • Only about two thirds of students in foster care attend the same school for the entire school year, compared to 90% of the general student population.
  • About 10% of foster youth attend more than three schools during the school year, a level of school mobility experienced by only about 1% of the statewide student population.

What are some learning challenges foster youth face in school?

Frequent school changes make it difficult for children to learn and keep up with peers. Foster students are forced to adapt to a new curriculum and classes in the middle of the school year. This also causes foster youth to be more likely to be held back or repeat a grade than the general statewide population.

Other, less obvious obstacles that come with frequent school changes include the challenge of making new friends and building relationships with supportive teachers and staff. Students that have changed schools many times may also be less likely to participate in extracurricular activities.

What are educational outcomes of foster youth vs. non-foster youth?

Most youth can rely on a parent to keep track of school records and immunizations. Foster youth are constantly moving between many different placements, thus maintaining a complete set of records is difficult.

When foster youth change schools, they may fall behind their peers because credits for classes taken at other schools are not always counted or appropriately tracked. In fact, in California, 58% of 12th-grade foster students go on to receive a high-school diploma while 84% of non-foster youth statewide go on to graduate from high school.

As a result, some foster students are forced to take the same class over again, which can delay graduation. Other foster youth may be granted partial credits for coursework completed before a school transfer in the middle of a school year.

Many foster youth also often lack someone to oversee their progress and ensure that they are in the right classes and getting the right services. Not all foster parents or group home staff members may be engaged in the educational success of a foster student—ensuring that they are on track to graduate from high school, taking college-preparatory classes and receiving other educational resources. Many foster youth may miss significant chunks of class time because court-related activities and appearances.

How do foster youth qualify for special education services?

In order to qualify for special education servives, foster students must be assessed, according to an evaluation ordered by a foster parent or an education-rights holder. If a foster youth is found eligible for special education services, he or she will receive an individualized education program (a concrete plan on the type of services a youth will receive to address the student’s specific needs.).

Despite the high number of foster youth who require special education services in California, many are not identified and given the opportunity to receive special education services. As a result, this increases the possibility that foster youth fall behind their peers and even drop out.

Why do foster youth face a higher rate of school suspensions and expulsions than non-foster youth?

Foster youth often experience more behavioral issues at school than their peers due to abuse, neglect and related traumas that occurred during their early years. Research shows that students in foster care experience school suspensions and expulsions at higher rates than non-foster youth students. Disciplinary incidents can keep foster students out of the classroom, and they can also increase the likelihood that foster youth will “crossover,” and enter the juvenile justice system.

What are some challenges foster youth face while transitioning from foster care into independent living or college?

Nationally, only about 50% of foster youth graduate from high school by age 18. Attending college, or even graduating with a degree, can dramatically increase the ability of foster youth to become self-sufficient and stable. Yet despite high aspirations to attend college, only about 20% go on to enroll in college and approximately 3% and 7% of foster youth graduate.

In California, youth are able to remain in foster care until age 21 as long as they are working or going to school. However, many youth face barriers to staying in school. Even with support, many foster youth are prevented from attending college for financial reasons and concerns about housing. Other youth struggle to balance work schedules with academic responsibilities.

Campus support programs, such as the Guardian Scholars Program, offer college-age foster youth a host of academic, emotional, social and practical resources to keep them in school and on track to graduate.

What educational services and resources are available for students who are foster youth?

Students in foster care are also twice as likely as other students to be eligible for special education services in K-12 schools. These kinds of services includes resources, strategies and supports offered to children with a disability, at no extra cost to parents. Special education services include transportation, counseling, physical therapy and speech-language pathologists.

What is California doing to improve educational outcomes for foster youth?

In 2013 California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation designed to address the needs of foster students. Under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) program, California shifted the way it funds K-12 schools and increased funding for three groups of high-needs students: low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

As part of the sweeping changes, school districts are now allocated more money to address the educational needs of foster youth. Every year, each school district in California must create a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that details how money will be spent to support foster youth.

The California Department of Education’s Foster Youth Services Program offers funding and oversight to the Los Angeles County of Education when it comes to the educational needs of youth and children in foster care.

Can bureaucracy within the education system hold foster students back from succeeding?

School bureaucracy can also interfere with the ability of foster youth to learn and excel in the classroom. According to a 2015 report from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, a third of foster youth stated that they had been out of school for a month or longer because of a placement change. These delays are usually due to problems in transferring school records.

Some schools may not enroll foster youth who lack requisite paperwork, like missing school and health records. As a result of these delays in finding or receiving these records, foster youth are forced to miss school, delaying their education and forcing students in some cases to repeat classes or grades.

What policies and programs has California implemented over the past to address the educational barriers faced by foster youth?

  • Foster students are allowed to attend their school of origin, even if they don’t reside in the district.
  • School districts must calculate and accept partial credits for coursework completed in other schools.
  • Students in foster care must be allowed to graduate if many school changes have prevented them from meeting certain graduation requirements.
  • Foster students are permitted to immediately enroll in a school, even without having all school or health record accessible during initial enrollment.
  • The California Chafee Grant provides up to $5,000 a year of college for a foster student if a youth is, or has been, in foster care and has financial need.