In 1994 Jess McDonald, the director of Illinois Department of Children and Services at that time, recruited Sharon Freagon (professor at Northern Illinois University) to chair the B.H. vs. McDonald DCFS Education TASK FORCE. Angela Baron-Jeffrey joined the effort in November 1994. Together they researched best practices while Freagon facilitated the taskforce meetings, and together they drafted the report: A Report to Director McDonald About the Education of Illinois Children and Youth Who are in the Care and Custody of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), November 1995.
This 55-page report was ultimately integrated into the BH Decree and became a template for securing educational wellbeing for youth in care. DCFS also requested that Freagon and her team (at that time – Baron-Jeffrey) develop an implementation plan for the requirements in that report and a staff to execute it. The requirements included: a) writing education policy; b) providing a system of education experts to promote educational wellbeing for youth in foster care; 3) developing systematic educational collaboration between child welfare and school; d) creating electronic educational records and data exchanges with school districts and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE); e) training for child welfare professionals and caregivers; and f) DCFS/ISBE collaboration to improve the educational surrogate program.
Freagon and Baron-Jeffrey developed and began executing the plan for implementing the BH Recommendations in 1996. They drafted policies and procedures which DCFS adopted and issued as DCFS Educational Procedures 314 in January 1997.
NIU’s work on BH requirements to promote educational parity for youth in foster care with their non-foster care peers grew into the NIU Educational Access Project, which operates as a component of NIU Center for Child Welfare and Education (CCWE). The staff in this project worked to develop and implement policy, stimulate educational collaborations and address challenges that mitigate educational access and achievement for youth in foster care.
The NIU staff partnered with DCFS to build collaborations that benefit the education of youth in care. For example, NIU helped DCFS build collaborations with ISBE as well as with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) – the district with the largest number of youth in foster care at the time (almost 19,000). These collaborations established systems for networking, data sharing, training, and support between DCFS and with ISBE, and DCFS and CPS.
Furthermore, NIU staff designed, developed and implemented training programs for child welfare professionals, foster and adoptive parents, school personnel and district administrators, court personnel and other stakeholders who influence the education of youth in care.
Under the auspices of the Center for Child Welfare and Education, the Educational Access Project also developed and implemented the educational components of the Illinois Child Well Being Studies from 2001 to 2009. These studies contributed an understanding of the educational situation of Illinois youth in foster care, the barriers they face and their poor outcomes. The studies’ findings provided information that led to policy and practice changes that benefit youth in care.
Because of the wellbeing study findings about high non-promotional school mobility, DCFS modified case assignment practices in 2006 to help reduce school mobility. Illinois law at that time allowed youth in foster care to maintain attendance at their school of origin if DCFS determined it was in the student’s best interest. However, DCFS’ case assignment practices often relocated youth too far from their community to make this possible. The changes in case assignment was the first step in reducing school mobility for youth in foster care in Illinois.
Other examples of CCWE’s influence on education policy and practice changes include paradigm shifts that led to greater potential for education parity for youth in care. DCFS expanded its educational focus beyond K-12 to include Preschool education (developmental screening for children ages birth to three, collaboration with CPS for Child Find for 3-5 year olds), and to enhance its postsecondary programs to more youth in care. Furthermore, CCWE influenced education laws and practice to improve opportunity for youth eligible for special education and related services to obtain representation by adults who know them (foster parent as “parent”), adults who understand the youth’s rights under IDEA (developing 6-Hour Advocacy Training), and collaborating with ISBE to improve their educational surrogate recruitment, training and appointment.
CCWE has not only helped reshape policy and practice to influence greater focus on child wellbeing and improve the education situation of youth in foster care at the macro-level, the Educational Access Project staff serve foster families, intact families and post-adopt families, child welfare personnel, schools, courts and other stakeholders to address individual student issues. The Educational Access Project has helped over 20,000 individual students since its inception to overcome educational barriers, return to school and receive appropriate educational services, clearing the way for better outcomes than they would otherwise have achieved.