kids at school

If you have been reading our Weekly Wrap-Up, then you know that May is National Foster Care Month.  It’s a time to celebrate young people who find themselves in the foster care system and to honor the many Kentuckians who work to make a positive difference in the lives of these youth who have faced too many challenges in too few years.

This is also a perfect time to ask questions about how we can celebrate and also help youth in the foster care system through smart policies and on the ground action. And if there is an arena for foster youth that invites policy action, it is A6 programs.

Perhaps a note of explanation is necessary to ensure we’re all on the same page.  Traditional schools in a school district  – think of the elementary school down your street or your county’s high school – are categorized as A1 schools. Many districts have a second category of schools called A5 schools, which are alternative programs that the school system operates. In most cases, A5 schools are focused on students with disciplinary issues within the district.

A third category of schools includes A6 programs. Most A6 programs are operated on the campuses of residential treatment facilities for children in the care of the state. Other A6 programs are located in medical facilities for physically fragile children and youth in detention centers. No matter where the programs are operated, however, a defining factor of A6 programs is that they exist solely for children in the care of the state.

In many cases, the A6 programs operated on residential campuses provide a responsive, personalized and high quality experience for the young people they serve.  In fact, I would respectfully suggest that some A1 schools could learn some lessons from A6 sites about serving the whole child instead of merely thinking about test scores. In other cases, A6 programs do not provide a quality learning experience for kids.

But in every case, A6 programs are fraught with questions about resources, accountability, and authority.

This is, in fact, a complex and an “in the weeds” issue but sometimes – as children’s champions – we have to dive into deep and complicated issues. The first challenge in A6 programs is that “everyone is in charge” which means “no one is in charge.” The Cabinet for Health and Family Services; the Justice Cabinet; the Kentucky Department of Education; some third party entities, such as the Kentucky Education Collaborative for State Agency Children, which actually is part of Eastern Kentucky University; and many local school districts all have responsibility for certain parts of A6 programs. And yet, there is no single locus of authority or responsibility.

An even more confusing piece is around the financing of these programs. Some folks contend that A6 programs are underfunded and cite the efforts from providers to hold quality together through chicken wire, magic and bake sales. Others say the programs are adequately funded. And still others assert that these programs have excess fiscal support. The key here is that NO ONE has all the data about all the funding and therefore, an informed answer on fiscal adequacy is simply not available.

The inability to furnish data-based answers around funding for A6 programs are just as elusive when it comes to accountability. There is no clear program assessment, which means that aside from anecdotal stories, no one really knows which programs work well and which do not. In addition, there is no coherent system to measure individual student learning progress.

So A6 programs have a maze of bosses with no one in real control. There is no way to determine the adequacy of finances. And no one really knows which programs work and how the students are progressing.

The sad reality is that youth in the foster care system who are in A6 programs rarely have political capital. They have few voices speaking out on their behalf. And frankly, their life stories can sometimes make state leaders uncomfortable as their biographies are tales of abuse, neglect and tragedy.

But aside from their difficult experiences, these youth deserve the opportunity to learn in quality settings, and they need state leaders to help ensure A6 programs meet their needs.

Maybe President Stivers or Speaker Stumbo can challenge the respective chairs of Justice, Education and Health & Welfare Committees to come together to investigate this issue, which cuts across all of their portfolios.  Maybe Governor Beshear could add to his legacy by convening and empowering a group of key stakeholders with a charge to solve this issue by the end of his term. Maybe the candidates for Governor will prioritize this issue as part of their campaigns. Or maybe State Auditor Adam Edelen will grab this arena as his own. A performance audit by the State Auditor delivered in time for an action response by the 2016 General Assembly seems to fit with Edelen’s commitment to kids and penchant for deep analyses.

We at Kentucky Youth Advocates know that when leaders like the ones previously mentioned step up for kids, progress can be made. One example of this was back in 2012 when former Senator Ken Winters and Representative Joni Jenkins worked together on a bill to prohibit superintendents from assigning teachers or staff to an alternative program as the result of a disciplinary action. That was a step in the right direction for A5 and A6 programs and we need more progress like this to happen for A6 programs as a whole.

So now, we ask our state leaders to make kids in the care of the state a priority, and push for reforms to help this vulnerable population. That would be one of the most authentic ways to celebrate National Foster Care Month.