Reducing School Moves

I was tired. This would be my fourth high school in four years. I’d already moved twice the previous year, which meant having to go to two different schools during my junior year.

The principal didn’t make it easy. She looked over my transcripts, and decided that I should be placed in the 11th grade again. My heart sank as tears welled up in my eyes and the walls of my esophagus got tighter, making it impossible for me to swallow. There was no way in the world I was going to repeat 11th grade.

I began to cry right then and there as I pleaded for her not to do that. I told her I’d been in foster care since birth and moved around a lot. —A.L.

Source: Represent Magazine, 2009

* * * * * *

Foster care placement moves are tied to school mobility, which is defined as moving from one school to another when this is not dictated by a typical transition point, such as the normal move from elementary to middle school.

School mobility is a real challenge for kids in foster care. Research has shown that between 56% and 75% of students change schools when they enter foster care (Working Group on Foster Care and Education, 2014).

And that’s just one move. According to one study, 34% of 18-year-olds in foster care have experienced five or more school changes (Pears, et al., 2016).

School Moves Are a Problem

School mobility is hard on kids. It can lead to incomplete records and delays in enrollment. As A.L. illustrates in the opening of this article, high school students in foster care can have trouble transferring course credit. Research shows that mobile students—not just those in foster care—are about 4 months behind their peers in reading and math achievement (Mehana & Reynolds, 2004 cited in Pears, et al., 2016).

Because of these challenges, kids in care tend to score 15-20 percentile points lower than their peers on standardized tests (sources cited in McKellar & Cowan, 2011).

For many young people in foster care, school moves affect more than just academic progress. Moves can cause them to lose natural educational supports such as siblings, peers, and trusted adults like teachers, counselors, and coaches. They sometimes also lose formal supports such as special education instruction, supportive services, and language services. These losses likely contribute to the fact that kids in care are more likely to be held back, suspended or expelled, drop out, and to be referred for special education services.

A Focus on Educational Stability

Because school moves can interfere with learning and even long-term well-being, North Carolina child welfare policy emphasizes the importance of educational stability. Policy states that a child or youth must remain in their school of origin upon entering foster care or experiencing a foster care placement change. If it appears they cannot remain in their school of origin, a Best Interest Determination (BID) meeting must occur before a student changes schools.

BID Meetings

These meetings must be held within 7 days of the child or youth’s initial placement and any subsequent placements (within 5 school days).

When determining whether it is in the student’s best interest to remain in his or her school of origin, the county child welfare agency and local education agency/agencies must consider all factors relating to a child/youth’s best interest, including the student’s preferences, the preferences of parents or education decision makers, any previous school transfers and how they impacted the child, and how the length of the commute to school would impact the child, based on the child’s developmental stage.

The child welfare agency must invite the school’s point of contact to BID meetings. This person is responsible for inviting other relevant educational personnel.

BID meetings ensure all options are explored before a decision is made about where the child goes to school. For more on BID meetings, visit and download the “Best Interest Determination” form (DSS-5137), and the instructions for this form.

How Can We Reduce School Moves?

Reducing school moves is a complex challenge that can only be addressed through collaboration. Child welfare agencies and schools must communicate about the child and keep each other up-to-date. If they wait until a move is imminent, it’s too late.

One thing agencies and workers can do to minimize school moves is to prevent foster care placement disruptions. Careful matching of foster parent strengths and child needs before placement, adequate training of foster parents (especially on the topic of behavior management), the delivery of appropriate services to the child and family, and supporting foster parents all contribute to placement stability.

Schools should make sure students in foster care, birth and foster parents, and social workers all know their rights, so they don’t assume a placement change automatically means a change in schools. (For more on resource parent rights and responsibilities around children’s education, click here.)

Resource parents, too, can promote the educational stability for children in their care. They should take an active role in their children’s schooling. For example, contact children’s current and former teachers to obtain insights about the child’s strengths and needs as a student and to get ideas for how best to support the child in school. Building the teacher/foster parent relationship can also make foster parents a more effective member of the school team determining the educational plan for the child (Noble, 2003).

For more tips and specific steps to take, see Anna Morrison’s article in this issue.

General Resources

There are many resources available to help schools and child welfare agencies work together to reduce school moves, including the following:

  • The Youth in Foster Care Education Toolkit by the U.S. Department of Education, which has examples of tools to improve collaboration.
  • Joint Guidance from the NC Division of Social Services and NC Department of Public Instruction.
  • NC Foster Care Education Program Resources.