Tell your legislator to support this Pa. Senate bill that keeps kids on track to a high school diploma | Opinion

Youth activists rallying at the Pa. state Capitol on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 (submitted photo)

By Kate Burdick and Reynelle Brown Staley

More than a dozen youth advocates from Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Fostering Change and Juveniles for Justice are in Harrisburg this Tuesday, June 11,  with a singular purpose:To  educate lawmakers on the barriers to graduation they faced because of their involvement in the foster care or juvenile justice system.

They are calling on state lawmakers to support legislation to help remove these barriers.

State Sen. Pat Browne, D-Lehigh, a long-time champion for vulnerable students, has worked for years with Education Law Center and Juvenile Law Center on this issue.

His bill, the Fostering Graduation Success for Vulnerable Students Act (SB662), builds off models that are working in other states and incorporates the youth advocates’ feedback about the supports that would have helped them stay on track to a diploma.

Despite hard work and commitment, youth with system involvement, as well as those who experience homelessness, face myriad roadblocks that prevent them from earning academic credit even when they do everything asked of them – and too often, these youth are forgotten in conversations about education reform.

Moving to and between foster homes, group homes, treatment facilities, or juvenile justice facilities and being forced to change schools mid-year before earning full academic credit causes multiple disadvantages: a youth’s new school may refuse to honor credits previously earned; documentation of credits may be lost; or youth may not have had the opportunity to take a course that is a graduation requirement for their final school.

The youth we work with at both Education Law Center and Juvenile Law Center often go to school day every day, study, and pass their classes, only to learn they still need to retake classes or repeat entire grades.

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They may be further cut off from the programs they most loved at school, like extra-curricular activities, because they are transferred by the system and arrive at their new school after the sign-up deadline.

These setbacks devastate youth, and unfortunately can be the last straw that leads youth to give up and disengage from school completely. Youth of color and youth with disabilities, who are disproportionately represented in both systems due to bias and structural inequities, bear the biggest brunt of these policy failures.

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Browne’s legislation addresses these issues by ensuring that youth receive targeted supports to overcome the unique barriers caused by mobility and system involvement.

Specifically, this bill:

  • Designates a point person in school to work with the youth on a graduation planthat keeps them on track, engaged, and connected to necessary supports.
  • Ensures students get academic credit for work they completedat previous schools.
  • Provides make-up and diploma optionsto help the youth graduate on time.

In pursuit of better policies, Juveniles for Justice and Youth Fostering Change are officially publishing Operation: Education: An Action Kit to Achieve Positive Educational Outcomes for Youth in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems, designed to break down these unfair barriers to academic achievement.

Youth are also sharing their personal stories of delayed enrollment, how credits earned in residential placements never transferred to their home schools, and the impact of multiple school moves during their high school careers. After years of schooling and multiple living placements, some of the youth advocates have less than 10 credits to show for it.

When it comes to policies to help young people succeed in their education, it is vital to listen to the voices and experiences of youth themselves who have been in foster care or the juvenile justice system.

We urge lawmakers from across the Commonwealth today to take time to hear from youth, both in person and through their stories in the action kit.

We urge everyone to call your legislators and ask them to support Brown’s proposal.

Kate Burdick is a senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center. Reynelle Brown Staley is the policy director at Education Law Center. Both work to improve educational opportunities for youth in the child welfare and justice systems and have partnered with the youth advocates throughout development of their project.

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