Marcia Huff: Three critical changes to at-risk funding: tailor funding, meet student and family needs, and ensure transparency

February 24, 2021

For two years, I worked with youth exiting DC’s child welfare system. Reliable information on the child welfare system is purposely made scarce by DC leaders in an effort to avoid accountability, but in my experience, most young people left care without safe or stable housing, many had at least one child, and nearly all struggled to meet their basic needs. They entered care under traumatic and desperate circumstances, and too many exited under the same circumstances. 

I saw neglect of these young people by our city’s leaders and agencies. Our job is to make sure youth in the child welfare system have the care, tools, and resources to thrive. And we continually fall short of those basic necessities. Just look at our schools.

One family I worked with was a brilliant and beautiful young woman and her daughter, who is the same age as my own son. The mom entered care as a teen and never received support to complete high school after having her daughter. Leaving care, the family had no choice but to go to the DC General Family Shelter. 

Living in a shelter makes everything hard: finding fresh and tasty food, enjoying a snack in your bed (there are so many rodents and bugs!), doing laundry, accessing the internet, having a quiet place to complete homework and study, and traveling to and from school. There were numerous reasons to give up, but the mom pushed past most obstacles. 

It shouldn’t have been so hard. She should not have had to fight for resources and services for her daughter, such as paying for and enrolling in before- and aftercare, finding enrichment activities, obtaining school uniforms, having the internet to complete work (hello, digital divide!), and connecting with mental health resources. The family’s school, while generally supportive, didn’t have a specific approach for supporting families living in shelters. 

We failed the mom while in the city’s care, and we are still failing her and her family.   

So what could the city do differently, especially when it comes to supporting students? Looking at at-risk funding is the place to start.

  • Schools must use at-risk funds in an intentional manner based on what students and families need. That work begins with a conversation led by the student and family. A survey simply will not suffice. Instead, schools must engage families and students so families can tell schools what supports they need and want. Students and families know  more than anyone what their needs are and what supports will help them thrive. Yet our schools fail to have conversations with families and ask about their needs.
  • Funding must be differentiated because needs are differentiated. The definition of “at-risk” (which includes students whose families are experiencing homelessness, those who receive public benefits such as SNAP or TANF, students who are under the care of Child and Families Services Agency, or those who are more than a year behind in high school) covers many students — nearly half of DC’s public school students — and includes a broad range of needs. There is certainly overlap, but it is inappropriate to lump all of these students into one category and then provide general interventions and support. A child living in a shelter will differ from a child living with a foster family. The city must provide different ways to support students who have differing needs. Paired with asking families what they need, flexibility in funding will ensure students can get individualized support. 
  • Schools must be specific and transparent. Transparency is scarce when it comes to understanding how schools use “at-risk” funds. It is unclear who makes the decision and how decisions are made. For example, the Public Charter School Board must report on how schools plan to spend at-risk funds for students and the Board collects the information via a survey. Most reports lack details on staff positions, resources, and interventions. I didn’t see any plans that included the needs of students the schools were addressing, nor how programming or positions will address those needs. And that just accounts for public charter schools, not DC Public Schools. Schools should be required to submit a plan that includes the specific needs of their at-risk students, specific interventions used to address those needs, and related costs. Schools should also submit a public report at the end of the year on actual spending of at-risk funds and details on how students were impacted. 

Our schools should be fully funded and “at-risk” funds can be a powerful tool to support our city’s students. But there is much work to be done to tailor funding, meet needs, and ensure transparency.

By Marcia Huff, Ward 7 PLE Board member