21, No. 1
Tips for Collaborating with Schools
Adapted from Ward & Herrick, 2010
Establish a good working relationship with school personnel at the outset. Find out if the school district has designated someone to be point of contact for children involved with child welfare. If they do, get to know this person.
It may also be useful to introduce yourself at each school you will be dealing with before any specific issues arise involving individual students. In the beginning of the school year, take a contact sheet (such as this one) with you when you visit the schools in your area. You'll get the information you need to make communication easier later and will also have a chance to introduce yourself as a pleasant, resourceful, and organized advocate for the students on your caseload.
Ask questions. Just asking the right questions about a child's education can make a big difference. You don't need to be an education expert to ask these questions. The vast majority of educators are dedicated people who care deeply about the success of students. Unfortunately, they are often overwhelmed by their responsibilities to serve children of widely varying abilities, backgrounds, and needs. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, children can and do get lost in the system. Just by asking questions, in a respectful way, you are conveying to the school that someone is looking out for that child.
Think about how you are coming across. Be as aware of the manner in which you make a point as you are of the words you choose. Convey by your tone that while you are clear about the importance of meeting the needs of the child, you are also respectful of the role of educators in the process and aware of the constraints and pressures they face.
Be a good listener. Especially if the issue is a difficult one, there is a risk that the tension may interfere with your ability to listen respectfully and attentively to what the other side has to say as well as with your ability to ask the key questions that provide you with the information you need to advocate for the student.
Ensure the foster parent or biological parent is supported in their role. Help them feel confident about making their concerns and observations known. It's always a good idea to prepare with them ahead of time before any meeting with school staff so you can help them deal with any concerns they may have. These ideas for supporting foster parents may also be helpful.
Follow up. Being a good advocate involves not only representing to school staff what you think a student needs and working out a solution with them, but also following up to make sure what's decided is fully implemented.
This is often where things break down. Everyone's energy and attention is focused on problem solving to address a situation, and once agreement is reached, people may mistakenly think the situation has been resolved. Don't let that happen!
Document thoroughly. Keep good educational records, review them regularly, and keep them up to date. Especially for children in special education, there will be a lot of paperwork. Obtain necessary releases and set up clear mechanisms with the school and the foster parent for receiving copies of report cards, IEP minutes, etc. Keep a log of all communications you have with school personnel.
In North Carolina child welfare agencies are required to include in a child's case file all applicable parts of the Out-of-Home Family Services Agreement, including the health and education components, which must be signed by all appropriate parties. Files for school-age children in foster care must also contain educational records and reports, including IEPs when appropriate (NC DSS, 2015).
There are lots of details to master in this area of practice, but our basic role is easy to understand: we must approach children's education as a parent would, inquiring often about school progress and regularly asking, "Are we doing all that can be done to help this child succeed in school?"