The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Are Foster Children's Schools of Origin Always Best? A Comparison of School Quality in Birth Parent Versus Foster Parent Neighborhoods by Child Race/Ethnicity

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 5:30 PM
Nautilus 3 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Lauren E. Fries, MSW, PhD Student, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Sacha Mareka Klein, PhD, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University, Ann Arbor, MI
Molly Ballantyne, Student, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Research demonstrates that foster children tend to have poor educational outcomes, including lower scores on standardized tests than the general population (Stone, 2007) and lower grades in primary subjects (Courtney, Terao, & Bost, 2004).  Compared to other school-aged children, children in out-of-home care are twice as likely to be old for their grade, more likely to qualify for special education, and half as likely to graduate from high school (Smithgall et al., 2004). There is evidence that high rates of school mobility among foster children contribute to their poor educational outcomes (Smithgall, Jarpe-Ratner, & Walker, 2010), suggesting that it is in children’s best interest to minimize school transfers when they are placed in out-of-home care. This logic undergirds recent policies like the Fostering Connections for Success Act of 2008, which gives foster children the right to continue attending their ‘school of origin’ even when they are placed outside the school’s attendance area.  In the rush to address the negative impact of school mobility on foster children, however, the issue of school quality has been largely overlooked.

This study addresses the gap in literature by examining the quality of schools attended by foster children in out-of-home care.  The purpose of this study is to determine: 1) whether schools located in birth parent neighborhoods and foster placement neighborhoods differ in quality, and 2) whether these school quality differences vary by child’s race/ethnicity, sex or placement type.


We use a cross-sectional design, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and repeated measures ANOVA to assess differences in elementary school quality for first through fifth graders supervised by Los Angeles County child protective services in June 2010 who have birth parent addresses and foster placements located in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s attendance area (n=687).  Schools’ mean Academic Performance Index (API) pupil test scores are used as indicators of school quality. Choropleth maps, created in ArcGIS 10.0, depict the spatial relationship between foster child enrollment and school quality. 


Schools located in foster placement neighborhoods (M=746.53; SD=59.43) were higher performing than schools in birth placement neighborhoods (M=740.68; SD=59.43), but effect sizes were small [F(1,654) = 5.28, p < .05, partial η2 = .008].  A significant interaction among birth parent and foster parent school quality by race was found [F(2,645) = 3.03, p < .05]. Both birth parent and foster parent schools were lower performing for Black children than for White (Mdiff= -69.60, p=0.000) and Hispanic children (Mdiff= -27.64, p=0.000).  Foster placement schools were notably higher performing than birth parent schools for Black children, but birth parent schools out-performed foster parent schools for White children. Schools were similar in performance for Hispanic children.  Significant interactions were also found among school quality by sex [F(1,653) = 4.98, p < .05] and placement type [F(4, 464) = 4.011, p < .01].

Conclusions and Implications:  

These findings highlight the importance of considering school quality, not just mobility, when making educational decisions for foster children in out-of-home care.