Michigan officials begin making changes to improve education for foster youths

LANSING, Mich. — State officials in Michigan announced changes this week to address administrative failures that have made it difficult for some of the state’s most vulnerable foster youths to earn a high school diploma.

The measures — including two new dedicated state employees to help foster youths navigate the education system — were announced as the state Board of Education formally called on the Legislature to pass more significant reforms.

The actions came after NBC News reported on foster youths in Michigan who were denied credit for classes they took while living in state-funded, state-licensed residential facilities.

Ten current or former foster youths told NBC News earlier this year that they attended school for months or years in residential facilities where they had been placed by the state. They completed coursework, they said, and believed they were working toward a diploma. It wasn’t until they got out and tried to transfer to a public school that they learned their credits didn’t count, that they couldn’t transfer, or that evidence of the facility coursework they did at the residential had been lost as they bounced around the child welfare system.

Image: Christopher Jaco, Kayla Goshay, Christian Randle, Carlos Correa and Renard Baldwin learned the classes they took in state-funded, state-licensed institutions didn't necessarily count toward graduation.  (Ali Lapetina for NBC News)

Image: Christopher Jaco, Kayla Goshay, Christian Randle, Carlos Correa and Renard Baldwin learned the classes they took in state-funded, state-licensed institutions didn’t necessarily count toward graduation. (Ali Lapetina for NBC News)

Some saw their graduation delayed by years. Others became so frustrated with the prospect of repeating classes that they dropped out of school — part of the reason why state data show that only 40% of youths in residential or juvenile justice facilities in Michigan graduate from high school or earn a GED by age 19 , compared to 80% of public high school students overall.

“While my peers are getting ready to go to college, I’m being asked to start high school all over again,” Christian Randle, 17, told Michigan’s Board of Education during its December meeting on Tuesday.

Randle has given up on his dream of earning a high school diploma and is now pursuing a GED after spending more than a year trying to get credit for the 9th and 10th grade classes he took while living in a series of residential facilities. He was one of five foster youths who addressed the board or had their statements read into the record on Tuesday.

The youths’ stories were part of a joint presentation with two state agencies — the Department of Education, which oversees Michigan’s more than 800 school districts and is directed by the board, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the foster care system and contracts with residential facilities.

The two agencies announced changes to address concerns from the youths.

Tim Click, who spoke on behalf of the human services department, said his agency is now in the process of hiring two staff members — called educational analysts — who will keep tabs on the educational progress of youths living in residential facilities or transitioning from those facilities to a public school.

Kyle Guerrant, the education department’s deputy superintendent for finance and operations, said his agency has already taken steps to streamline communications between foster youths and schools by publishing a list of foster care liaisons.

Under federal law, every public school must designate a foster care liaison to help students transfer in and out of schools, but youths and their advocates said contact information for those liaisons wasn’t easy to find. Now it’s in an accessible place on the state’s website and will be printed out four times a year and distributed to organizations that support fostering youth, Guerrant said.

Other, more substantive changes will need to come from the Legislature, the agencies said.

The six board members present at the meeting voted unanimously to support a resolution asking the Legislature “to amend laws that will guarantee that vulnerable youths receive credit-bearing educational programming that will keep them on target to receive high school diplomas and allow them to access posts -secondary opportunities.”

The resolution did not specify which legislative changes are needed, but board member Tiffany D. Tilley, who said she drafted the resolution with help from foster care advocates, legislators and department of education officials, wants the Legislature to specify that classes foster youths take in residential facilities will be legitimate courses aligned with the state’s graduation requirements.

Currently the state’s contracts with facilities call for youths to get “appropriate educational services,” but leave the definition of “appropriate” up to the companies or organizations that run the facilities. Facilities can choose to send residents to nearby public schools or can operate charter schools or private schools on their campuses.

Several youths who shared their stories with NBC News described coursework that was substandard, including students who said they got elementary-level instruction as high-schoolers and students who said their classrooms were chaotic and had children from a wide range of ages and grades, with teachers doing little more than handing out worksheets.

“The first thing we need to do is to get into the Legislature and make certain that there’s no such thing as non-credit-bearing courses in Michigan public education. Not for anybody. Not acceptable,” state schools Superintendent Michael Rice said before the vote on the resolution.

Rep. Lori Stone, a Democrat who was named during the meeting as the lawmaker behind the proposed legislation, declined to comment. Dawn Jakubowski, Stone’s legislative director, said in an email that a House Democratic policy team “just began working on this potential legislation about a month ago” so it’s too preliminary to share publicly.

Democrats will take control of both state legislative chambers in January — the first time the party will control both houses and the governor’s office in nearly 40 years.

The foster youths and their advocates said they’re hopeful that real change is coming.

The very fact that the youths — members of an advocacy organization called Empowering Foster Youth Through Technology, or EFyTECH — worked with top officials from the two agencies to put together the joint presentation is a sign of progress, said Saba Gebrai, the program director for the Park West Foundation, which helps foster youths as they age out of the system and supports EFyTECH.

She credits the activism of the youths by bringing all the parties together.

“More people are paying attention to a forgotten group,” she said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com