A program to improve the educational outcomes for children in foster care is being launched in Pima County.

Pima County is home to about 4,000 foster children — more than a quarter of the 14,000 children in the system across the state.

While the goal of removing a child who has experienced neglect or abuse is to improve his or her quality of life, recent studies have found that their educational futures are often bleak.

With these students’ higher rates of absenteeism and disciplinary referrals than their peers; a higher likelihood of performing below grade level, being held back in school and dropping out; and being less likely to attend a four-year college, education officials say there is a need for intervention.

“No group of students is more in need of educational success than children in foster care,” said Debbie D’Amore, chief deputy for the Pima County school superintendent. “Without educational attainment, many become reliant on the public welfare system, experience homelessness or are incarcerated.”

That’s where FosterEd, a national initiative that pairs at-risk foster children with “educational champions,” comes in.

The court-appointed educational champion could be a caseworker, counselor, foster parent or biological parent. Ideally, the champion would be a person the child already knows well, but with so many children in the foster-care system in Pima County, community members will also be called upon to volunteer.

The educational champion will be heavily involved with the child’s life and education, helping to keep him or her on track with schoolwork, communicating with teachers and generally taking charge of the foster child’s education. The volunteer and the child will also have the backing of a support team to assist and monitor progress.

The program, which is in a two-year pilot phase, is a collaboration between local school districts and child-welfare and judicial agencies, which will work to develop new practices and policies to ensure educational success for foster children.

“Improving the educational outcomes of students in foster care cannot be accomplished by any one agency alone,” said Pauline Machiche, program manager for Child Protective Services in the region. “It requires increased collaboration and communication, and increased commitment to ensuring foster children receive the educational opportunities they need.”

The Pima County project will serve as a pilot for a statewide effort. Only two other states, California and Indiana, have implemented the FosterEd program.

Data collected over the two-year period will be used to show improvements in attendance, behavioral referrals, test scores, graduation rates and mobility.

Financial backing for the project is from the Arizona Community Foundation; Community Foundation for Southern Arizona; Helios Education Foundation; Paul and Amy Blavin; Eaglet Fund; Troller Fund; Kieckhefer Foundation; Ventana Charitable Foundation; and the Blessings Fund.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.