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The Journey: Investing in Educational Advocacy
by National CASA
Child Advocates of Silicon Valley (CA) has invested its time and resources in building education advocacy skills and awareness in their CASA volunteers for the last six years. Below, Interim Executive Director Karen Scussel shares highlights from the program's journey and lessons learned along the way.
The Early Days: Lessons Learned
In 2006 our agency decided to focus on education advocacy because we recognized that placement changes and the foster care environment do not always support academic achievement. Our initial efforts focused on training volunteers to support high school juniors and seniors, a group for whom our court and social service agency were eager to provide additional educational supports.
While our efforts certainly met with success, we also gained knowledge through this effort that caused us to refocus our efforts and revise our strategies. Fundamentally, we realized that to isolate education as a stand-alone focus was to ignore other inter-related areas, such as the child's social, emotional and cultural needs. And we learned that focusing on juniors and seniors is a little late in the game. A body of research indicates that children who graduate from eighth grade performing at grade level they are better prepared for - and more likely to graduate from-high school and to succeed as a healthy, independent adult.
We adjusted our approach based on these and other similar lessons. Today, education advocacy training and support is infused throughout our agency and addresses the needs of all age groups. Education advocacy has been identified as one of eight key areas of support provided by all of our advocates (154 KB PDF). All advocates are encouraged to complete our eight-hour education certification training, attend our quarterly education advocacy workshops, and participate in monthly discussion groups. In these trainings and forums, our advocates learn about the structure and governance of public education and laws related to general, special and foster-youth education. In addition, they receive training in how to best partner with teachers, school officials and parents or foster parents.
We've also built education advocacy into our monthly report forms (132 KB PDF) that all volunteers submit to their supervisors, thereby capturing opportunities for additional coaching and supervision. We've found that building education into the ongoing conversation with advocates is really important.
This year almost 80% of our advocates reported providing some type of academic support to the child they represented throughout the year; 61% of our advocates saw increased improvement in their child's scholastic life.
Middle School Pilot: Partnerships Expand Opportunities
A current focal point of our work in education advocacy is a specialty court pilot project, a collaboration among our CASA program, the court, social services, mental health providers, the county office of education, the research institute at San Jose State University and an independent education consultant. The pilot focuses on foster youth in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
A total of 45 students are participating in this three-year pilot. As each child joined the program, the education consultant conducted a detailed assessment of the child's education records and made a set of recommendations. In many cases, we discovered the children were not being provided the services-and opportunities- they needed. For example, of the initial group of 24 students, four were identified as gifted who had never been recognized as high-potential students in the past. Six children were identified as requiring special education, needs that had been previously overlooked.
Children served by this partnership are receiving the attention and support they need to succeed from a team of "systems partners" -the CASA volunteer, social services representatives, judge, parent and child attorneys, mental health professional, and CASA staff. We regularly review each child's case plan, identify additional needs and opportunities- and strengths- that we present to the social worker, the child and to the family with whom the child is living. We hold semiannual meetings with children to hear from them how school is going and what more they may need to help them reach their hopes and dreams.
We've seen time and again that focusing on recognizing strengths is critical to building confidence and empowering our youth. This has been one of my favorite parts of the specialty court process- supporting the children in developing confidence and helping them see what they are capable of achieving.
A San Jose State University professor is midway through a longitudinal study of the middle school education court pilot program that should be completed in mid-2013. However, we are already seeing results. All participating eighth graders have successfully transitioned to high school. Grades have improved and the children have expressed greater confidence in their high school and college possibilities. In addition, the focus on education advocacy- in this pilot and throughout our program- is enabling our volunteers to see more concrete results of their work, as the children they work with experience success in school.
I've been an advocate, a board member, an office volunteer and now interim executive director. Helping children succeed in school, knowing it is going to set their lives on a better course, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my CASA involvement. I'll never forget a young man I worked with who was on the verge of failing high school when we met. After years of support and encouragement- and a great deal of nagging- he graduated from high school. He earned all As and Bs in his senior year and was recognized as Most Outstanding Student of the Year by his teachers and principal. After his graduation, he sat with me, holding his diploma, running his fingers over the embossed seal. "I didn't think it would feel this way," he said. "The diploma?" I asked. "That too," he replied.