Brianna always knew she wanted to go to a four-year college, but as a foster student in King County, the odds were stacked against her.
That’s why she chose to join the Graduation Success program with Treehouse, a local nonprofit dedicated to addressing the academic and essential needs of kids in foster care. Treehouse CEO Janis Avery said the Graduation Success program is designed to introduce stability into the lives of foster kids and young adults, often for the first time, by pairing them with an education specialist they meet with weekly. The specialists help students set goals, make plans and advocate for themselves.
“The object really is to put these young people, who have had lots of things happen to them, back in the drivers’ seat of their own lives,” Avery said.
Brianna, a 2017 graduate who asked not to publish her last name, got involved with Treehouse about a year into entering foster care, when she switched from Issaquah School District to Renton’s in her last year of middle school. As a freshman, she was paired with Taji Ellis, an education specialist at Renton High School who has helped her with different goals, from joining the basketball team and applying to college to landing her first job.
“We thought we were having a positive impact and we were not.”
Graduation Success launched in 2012 when the staff at Treehouse learned that foster students in King County had the lowest on-time graduation rate in the state, 36 percent at the time.
“[It was] really shocking to us because we were doing things that we thought ought to be impacting, so we knew we were helping individual students,” Avery said. “We thought we were having a positive impact and we were not.”
Treehouse set an ambitious five-year goal to help youth in foster care across King County graduate from high school at the same rate as their classmates. By basing themselves in middle and high schools, and using their existing relationships with the community, they were able to get systematic referrals for all youth in foster care in the area to assess if it’s the right fit for the student.
A key finding of the program was that youth in foster care often need more time to graduate. They face an average of three home placements. Switching homes means they lose four to six months of academic progress each time, on top of other challenges. Treehouse adjusted its goal and is celebrating its five-year graduation success rate of 89 percent, 7 percent higher than the state rate for all students. With a 68 percent on-time graduation rate for the class of 2017 among the programs’ youth (54 out of 80 students) they have yet to match the 83 percent on-time graduation rate for the state.
Nationally, only 50 percent of youth in foster care graduate from high school by age 18 compared to 83 percent for all students. In Washington, 43 percent of youth in foster care graduate with their original class and 49 percent do so in five years.
“The main point of Graduation Success is of course for them to graduate, but also to give them the tools so they can be successful even beyond their high school graduation,” Ellis said. “Because we want them to graduate, but we also want them to have a plan for their future.”
Studies show people who grow up in the foster system are more likely to experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, early parenting and substance abuse.
People who grow up in the foster system are more likely to experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, early parenting and substance abuse, according to studies from the University of Chicago and Casey Family Programs. According to the 2012 study “The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth,” students who graduate from high school save taxpayers $1 million over a lifetime.
For these reasons, among others, the program emphasizes short- and long-term goals, with a focus on where youth would like to be in their mid-20s.
Supporters and educators initially thought the plan was too ambitious, but encouraged Treehouse to try anyway. Avery said schools were really open partners because they tracked the same indicators and held the same goals, and philanthropy allowed them to reach their goals. The program has been so successful it expanded into Tacoma and Spokane this year and Treehouse is working on expanding statewide.
“For me, there really was no other choice than to take a bold step and really try to do better than anyone had ever done before for students in foster care,” Avery said. “I was always optimistic about what we’d be able to do and we have exceeded my expectations. And there’s still plenty to learn.”
Ellis works hard to be a source of stability for the students in her care at Renton High School. She works with 20 to 30 students at a time. Brianna is one of the first students she has had the opportunity to work with for four consecutive years, which is unusual because many students enter mid-way through a school year. This has allowed their relationship to play many roles as they’ve learned how to work together, from mentor to counselor to teacher, as well as someone to joke around and be playful with. Education specialists stay with students through their first year after high school, so their relationship hasn’t ended with Brianna’s on-time graduation from Renton High School in June.
Brianna is excited to head to college next month at Seattle Pacific University with a host of scholarships fully covering her tuition, room and board. She said she believes it’s important for all youth to graduate, but especially huge for students in foster care.
“I feel like foster youth have a negative [stigma] around them, and it’s awesome to see people like me and past foster youth graduates from Renton High School graduate,” she said. “Because it gives the younger foster youth who are just becoming freshman or sophomores or juniors hope that there is a better life out there for you than the situation that got you into foster care.”
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