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Colorado Lab Efforts Lead to New Legislation Supporting Foster Youth

The bill drew heavily from the policy lab’s research about the underlying causes of high school drop-out rates among those in foster care.

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Colorado Senate chamber

When Elysia Clemens started researching foster youth programs several years ago, she knew that many kids who entered the foster care system in Colorado dropped out of high school before earning a diploma. However what Clemens, a former professor at the University of Northern Colorado and current deputy director of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab, couldn’t determine was how bad the problem really was. The information about educational achievement and other outcomes was stored in separate databases run by different state agencies — leaving all of the people who were working on this problem with only a piece of the picture.

To get the answers she needed, Clemens and her team partnered with the Colorado Departments of Human Services and Education to develop an integrated data-sharing system that merged child welfare and education data to provide a 360-degree look at the problem. She and her colleagues published their initial findings in 2016, and the numbers put the issues in sharp relief. Colorado students in foster care, on average, changed public schools 3.46 times during their first four years of high school. Worse still, as the number of school changes during this time increased, the odds of earning a high school diploma decreased drastically: Less than one-third of foster youth were graduating high school on time, compared to 75 percent of Colorado’s general student population.

Clemens knew that her research had important public policy implications, so she worked with the Colorado Lab to share the findings with lawmakers. This led Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign into law this summer a major bill to fund the transportation of foster youth to their schools of origin. The legislation drew heavily from Clemens’ research about the underlying causes of drop-out rates — a testament to the lessons she and her team learned along the way about how to engage state officials in evidence-based policymaking.

“The [study] was able to support meaningful policy and practice changes because it began with a need identified by practitioners,” Clemens said. “All research questions, products, and communication strategies were framed by the goals of state agency leaders.”

Following the release of their initial study, the team undertook further research focused on identifying school districts with high rates of student mobility that would help the state prioritize where to target resources upon passage of the bill. Clemens and her team realized government partners needed to understand the findings, so the Lab held trainings for agency leaders on how to communicate about the research to others. The state leaders felt like they “owned” the study, she said, and shared the findings broadly across the government. Thanks to their strong relationships, the research team was also invited to serve on a task force appointed by the governor’s cabinet. The collaboration was crucial to the bill’s success.

“At the invitation of this leadership, our research team offered guidance at every stage of the process, which included breaking down data silos, accessing and linking data, communicating findings, and using the results to drive change,” the team said.

Without the commitment to collaborate with state agencies, Clemens’ research might have never reached the state legislature. The Colorado Lab incorporated government input throughout the research process, cultivated shared ownership over the findings, and made the findings accessible. In conjunction, these three actions helped the research findings become policy.

3.46 Number of times Colorado students in foster care, on average, changed public schools during their first four years of high school
10.4% Proportion of Colorado students in foster care who did not change schools during their first four years of high school
1 in 3 Proportion of Colorado foster youth who graduated on time, compared to 75 percent of Colorado’s general student population