How one district is improving outcomes for foster youth
Study finds promising practices in Sweetwater Union High School District
close cropped view of a teens hands gesturing in conversation as an adult woman's hand hold a notepad and pen

Family disruptions, trauma, out-of-home placements and school changes are common experiences among children in foster care, and often result in higher rates of disciplinary problems, grade repetition, special education placement and dropping out of high school, as well as lower academic achievement, and increased barriers to postsecondary education.

However, for the more than 52,000 youth in California’s foster care system, school stability, positive relationships with peers, positive school experiences and strong connections with adult mentors have all been linked to improved educational outcomes among students with foster care experience (FCE).

To implement strategies known to benefit students in foster care, local educational agencies can look to Sweetwater Union High School District’s (SUHSD) practices, programs and policies that promote the academic well-being of students with FCE as an example of what can happen when students receive the support they need to succeed, according to a new brief.

“Supporting the Academic Success of Students with Foster Care Experience: Lessons from Sweetwater Union High School District,” released in June by the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, detailed how practices in SUHSD align with those identified by California high school graduates with FCE in interviews that explored high school experiences, unaddressed needs and recommendations for supporting foster youth.

Generally, staff play a significant role in creating a positive climate for students in foster care.

“Participants noted that teachers were an essential source of academic and emotional support. Teachers often knew about students’ foster care status, which made them more accommodating. Teachers’ willingness to tailor academic experiences to the scholastic and emotional needs of students fostered a sense of belonging and had a positive impact on the students’ overall mood while in school,” the report states. “Similarly, connection to counselors and mental health clinicians provided necessary emotional supports that helped to mitigate the impact of unstable home situations on the students’ academic well-being. Finally, participants emphasized the need for peer or near-peer mentorship, stating it would have been helpful to have someone slightly older with similar foster care experiences to guide them through the process of applying for college and navigating the transition to postsecondary education.”

Some students noted that teachers’ awareness of their foster care status led to lower expectations, however, which did not prepare them for postsecondary education. Others reported that some school personnel had little concern for the emotional challenges related to changing schools and unstable home environments.

Sweetwater Union HSD

Foster youth in SUHSD not only improved but in many cases surpassed state and county averages across several academic indicators between 2017 to 2021, according to data from the California Department of Education. Since 2015, the district has served approximately 1,165 students in foster care.

Between 2015 and 2019, high school dropout and suspension rates among students in foster care decreased by 25 percent and 6 percent, respectively, according to the report.

“These promising academic outcomes were paralleled by evidence illustrating the experience of SUHSD teachers and personnel. The average teacher at Sweetwater had 15.3 years of experience, and approximately 90 percent of teachers and pupil services personnel have served at SUHSD for three or more years,” researchers wrote. “SUHSD’s success in supporting students with FCE is in large part due to their interdisciplinary team structure, strong community, integration of restorative practices, and adoption of policies that support student autonomy.”

Specifically, the district has implemented a continuum of services collaboratively administered by SUHSD personnel and the local child welfare agency. This approach facilitates cross-system collaboration and allows personnel to leverage the resources and expertise of both service sectors while minimizing role confusion and redundancies, researchers noted.

Often, the trauma-informed and restorative teaching and counseling approaches used with all students also greatly benefit foster youth. These include allowing students to take breaks during class, resolving disputes in the classroom by holding restorative circles and offering Saturday School for students who fall behind on schoolwork, as well as offering expedited transcript review, partial credit provision, credit path coaching and wellness rooms where students can decompress during school hours.

“Although these supports benefit all students, school personnel noted that these protocols effectively prevented students in foster care from ‘falling through the cracks,’ especially since child welfare caseworkers generally have little time to address their clients’ academic needs,” the report states.

Additionally, while state law mandates that schools provide alternatives to suspension and expulsion, SUHSD goes beyond by prioritizing practices that reduce the likelihood of escalation in the first place. District staff receives training to consider the reasons behind students’ behaviors and take advantage of de-escalation techniques, and, if disciplinary hearings do occur, the Youth in Transition (YIT) program prioritizes having a team member present at the meeting to advocate for the student. Among other things, the YIT program fosters a sense of community among foster youth by coordinating award ceremonies and field trips to local college campus support programs for students with FCE.


Researchers identified four categories of supports that would positively benefit foster youth:

  • Invest in interdisciplinary teams focused on students with FCE across the education and child welfare sector
  • Integrate restorative practices at school
  • Support student autonomy while planning for postsecondary education and employment
  • Foster a positive school climate by hiring former students and offering opportunities for students with FCE to build community with one another

Read the brief at