Fostering Opportunities paves the way toward improving educational outcomes for foster care youth

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In Colorado, only one in four students who experience foster care during high school graduate with their class. In response, the Fostering Opportunities program was developed and piloted in Jeffco Public Schools, with results exceeding expectations.

Partners in the pilot project include Jefferson County Human Services, the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) and its Office of Children, Youth & Families (OCYF), the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budgeting, and the Community First Foundation through an innovative form of social financing called Pay for Success.

The collaborative, multidisciplinary approach of the program resulted in a 26.47% increase in students on track to graduate high school who are living in out-of-home care. This result far exceeded the Pay for Success “highest level of success” goal of achieving a 10% improvement. 

“These numbers match the incredible stories we have heard over the years of how the Fostering Opportunities program is changing young people's lives,” said Elysia V. Clemens, PhD, LPC and deputy director of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab with the University of Denver.

Fostering Opportunities is thus far the only approach in the U.S. proven to improve educational outcomes for middle school and high school students in foster care. Launched in 2021 to address the low graduation rate of students living in foster care, the Community First Foundation grant-supported program was created and piloted by Jeffco Public Schools. It has impacted about 130 students in grades 6-12, demonstrating statistically significant improvements for participating students, including an increased likelihood to graduate with their class, improved attendance, and fewer suspensions.

“I have never felt more noticed or listened to than when I learned I could be in this program,” said one student who participated in the Jeffco program. “Going into foster care took so many things away from me, which sucked... but I gained the support of the program and without that, I don’t know where I would be now… I probably would’ve quit school… yeah, maybe in trouble or something. But [the Specialist] kept showing up for me and believing in me and telling me I could be better, so I guess I started to believe it. She got on my nerves with her positivity but I get it, and I am grateful.”

The program credits success on three core elements: 

  • Youth-serving agencies coordinate efforts, aligning and opening up communications between child welfare, education, and other youth-serving agencies.
  • Systems track and support students across placements and schools, actively identifying students eligible for the program.
  • Education “Specialists” work directly with students as dedicated mentors that provide academic and social-emotional support, advocate on their behalf, teach them how to advocate for themselves, and help them to build a reliable network of support in the school environment and beyond. 

“Young people are our future, and it’s so important that we continue to find new and better ways to set them up for success,” said OCYF Director Minna Castillo Cohen. “Fostering Opportunities’ innovative approach and tireless dedication to tackling barriers to educational attainment is an inspiration to us all.”

Fostering Opportunities is Colorado’s first-ever state funded Pay for Success project. This approach to public funding relies on philanthropic dollars to test promising interventions, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are directed to proven practices. The Community First Foundation invested $789,000 in the Jeffco project and once goals were met, the State of Colorado repaid the Foundation its initial investment plus $10,600 interest.

“Pay for Success is an innovative way to pay for social services to help governments target their limited dollars to achieve positive, measurable outcomes,” said Ken Kirwin, chief financial officer and chief operating officer for Community First Foundation. “We had confidence in our partners’ ability to develop and deliver the program with measurable and evidence-based outcomes. Now, the program is being replicated in other communities in our state. Students are benefitting and so are our communities.”

Colorado’s Foster Care Success Act (HB22-1374) provides the resources needed to sustain this program in Jeffco in perpetuity. It also makes it possible for two additional school districts to adopt the Fostering Opportunities program in the 2023-2024 school year. Those districts are expected to be announced later this year.

State funding to support implementation and ongoing programming specific to Fostering Opportunities has been appropriated through HB22-1374 for program expansion. CDHS is awarding up to $500,000 in state fiscal year (SFY) 22-23 and about $1.1 million in SFY 23-24 to support human services agencies and school districts interested in implementing this intervention.

A CDHS memo provides additional information on the program and how school districts interested in implementing the program can apply. Applicants and funding will be selected based on district need, local foster care population, and geographic diversity.

Media Resources: Fact Sheet