Court’s Partnership with Schools, Legal Aid Seeing Benefits
Looking to boost educational outcomes for Cincinnati students in foster care, four community partners in Hamilton County looked at how they can improve the lives of these children in school.
Carla Guenthner, a Hamilton County Juvenile Court chief magistrate, said Cincinnati wasn’t focusing on school issues when kids entered the foster care system.
“We weren’t always prioritizing the educational needs of kids in foster care. Our kids often come into foster care already behind in school and many have mental and behavioral issues that impact their academic performance and school success,” Guenthner said. “Without these interventions, many kids in foster care would be on a path for failure.”
To help find the right path for the students, the court teamed up with Hamilton County Job and Family Services (JFS), the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, and the Cincinnati Public School District to start KISR! (Kids in School Rule!). Guenthner said this program provides a “systematic response” to help support foster kids in school.
“It’s not a perfect system, but I think we are further along than we ever imagined,” Guenthner said.
Since 2008, KISR! has looked to improve academic performance and school stability for students in Cincinnati who are either in JFS custody or under agency protective supervision.
KISR! started as a pilot program in 22 Cincinnati schools and expanded to all 57 schools (there are currently 56 schools in the city) by January 2012 with the help of a grant.
Guenthner said about 330 students in the custody of Hamilton County are participating in KISR! this school year.
Cincinnati Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Bill Myles said the community partners look at the “whole child” to see what changes are needed so the student can be successful in school.
“Where they used to fall between the cracks, now there’s someone there to make sure they don’t,” Myles said.
Guenthner said KISR! works because it focuses on student outcomes and places a strong emphasis on school stability. Part of that includes finding foster parents near the student’s school so children can remain in their same classes when they enter foster care. KISR! also provides an education specialist at JFS and a staff liaison in each school so students know where to turn if issues arise. The program’s partners also make efforts to avoid visitation disruptions and other foster care case-plan services during the school day.
For its part, the juvenile court now includes language in its documents to require immediate school enrollment for children entering foster care, even if the school hasn’t received all the necessary paperwork. And, all magistrates presiding over child-protection cases use a Judicial Bench Card for Education Success to promote court action on educational issues every time a KISR! student comes before them.
Guenthner said there’s a small percentage of foster care children in Cincinnati public schools. About 1,300 kids are in agency custody, and a quarter of those aren’t even school-aged. Still Guenthner said having all these resources available for students are important for their future.
“While school stability, attendance, and performance have improved and school discipline has decreased, we still have areas that require attention and focus,” Guenthner said. “But we are seeing dramatic improvement in school outcomes for students participating in the program. The graduation rates for KISR! students far exceed the rate for the general student population in the district.”
Myles is also seeing progress in the school system. He said the school liaisons are watching the KISR! students and providing interventions when needed.
“We’ve had more students that are graduating,” Myles said. “Things are put into place to make sure there’s follow through, not only at school but also at home.”
One former KISR! student said she was grateful for the program.
“KISR! advocated on my behalf to make sure that I did not fall behind or fall through the cracks,” she said. “I am very thankful that I had someone to advocate for me and my education. KISR! is a great program, and I don’t know where I would be without it.”
A recently released study looked at KISR! during the 2013-2014 school year to determine its effect and see if students had positive school experiences. It found that based on the total number of students in KISR! on the last day of the school year (146), 76 percent remained in the same school throughout the year and 91 percent of eligible KISR! seniors graduated.
“Education opens critical doors,” said Elaine Fink, the managing attorney for Legal Aid in Cincinnati. “Students in the foster-care system deserve every chance we can give them to gain school success and stability to increase the likelihood that they will earn a high school diploma and be able to pursue higher education or secure employment.”
Fink said Legal Aid Education attorneys represent individual students and coordinate with the school liaison and the JFS education specialist when a KISR! student encounters problems related to special education or school disciplinary issues.
The KISR! Leadership Team meets about once a month and there are frequent trainings about KISR! and other law-related programs. The team discusses problem-solving techniques and jointly reviews and analyzes data on individual students, as well as the program as a whole, to ensure that KISR! meets students’ goals of academic success, stability, and social involvement.
“The ‘can do’ spirit and the willingness to stretch norms and develop new protocols to keep students in school and engaged in learning that exists among all partners have created powerful benefits for KISR! students,” Fink said.
There’s now national interest in the KISR! program. Kathy McNaught with the American Bar Association currently leads the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. She provides support and technical assistance to groups across the country focusing on improving the education stability and success for children in the foster-care system.
“The challenges faced by children in foster care in Hamilton County are no different from the challenges that we see in other parts of the country,” McNaught said. “We have not only been able to give some advice on how to tweak KISR! to support improved outcomes for students in Cincinnati Public Schools, but also have played a role in sharing the successes of the project with other jurisdictions throughout the country.”
McNaught said it’s critical that all systems involved in the lives of children in foster care coordinate ways to best serve their educational needs.
“Involvement in the child welfare system creates unique barriers to education success that can’t be overcome without efforts of all systems involved,” McNaught said. “Improved courtroom attention and legal advocacy are important strategies to support this work.”
“Similarly, education and child welfare systems must review their policies and practices to remove any barriers for court-involved youth and to provide the right supports to ensure students have a chance at success,” she added. “KISR! has many of the components of a successful intervention program.”
Hamilton County’s community partners will shape the future of KISR! and the students it serves with the hope that it will continue to see progress over the next several years. McNaught said more resources and funds are critical to successfully sustain the KISR! program as well as develop more support systems for students to help improve their grades and other school outcomes.
“Ultimately we’d like all kids in foster care to benefit from the components offered in the KISR! program,” Guenthner said.
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