Only a fraction of kids in foster care go to college, and even fewer graduate. The small but successful scholarship program aims to change that.

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When Tara Reynolds first moved to Seattle, she blurred over the details of her childhood by telling new friends that she went to high school at a Wyoming boarding school.

It wasn’t exactly a lie. She went to high school away from home, and she stayed in a place that offered room and board. Boarding school. Why not?

Today, Reynolds describes her teen years more directly: Throughout high school, she stayed in a group home for troubled kids, far away from a toxic family home life.

Perhaps it’s easier to say those words now that she can also describe herself as a junior at Seattle University, on a full-ride scholarship, majoring in film studies with a plan to work on documentaries.

She’s part of Seattle University’s Fostering Scholars scholarship program, which the college says is the most comprehensive program of its kind in the country. Now 10 years old, Fostering Scholars has a student-retention rate of 80 percent — about the same rate as for all students at the university.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a New York-based nonprofit that works to spread the practice of solutions-oriented journalism. Education Lab is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

That’s a remarkable number because only about half of all foster kids even graduate from high school. Only about 10 percent go to college, according to one study. And of those students, only about 3 percent graduate.

Seattle University “has done a heck of a good job — I’m incredibly proud of their work,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who got his start in politics when he drafted a state law to provide scholarship help to foster students.

Carlyle thinks public colleges and universities across the state should be emulating the private Jesuit school’s program, which he says steers kids through the financial-aid bureaucracy and gives them comprehensive support through college.

And Rachelle Sharpe, deputy director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state board that guides higher-education policy, calls it an amazing program — “a shining example of an institution’s commitment to develop a comprehensive program to support former foster youth.”

The elements of the scholarship are simple: Students who are selected don’t pay tuition, and they receive year-round housing on campus and a meal plan. Two staff members serve as master problem-solvers for the students, helping them navigate the higher-education system.

Counseling — for academics or for social issues — is part of the package, and the young adults get extra help after graduation to ease them into careers.

Giving students a place to stay year-round is one of the most important parts of the scholarship, said Colleen Montoya Barbano, the program’s director. Many foster kids have never had a safe and consistent home, she said.

Barbano described foster kids as “one of our most vulnerable populations, and not because of skill or intellectual ability.” Yet foster-care children are rarely encouraged to think about going to college, she said.

Dreamed it up

The idea of offering a comprehensive scholarship for foster-care youth came, quite literally, in a dream.

Marta Dalla Gasperina, a volunteer with the Seattle nonprofit Treehouse— an advocacy group for foster kids — had a vivid dream one night that she was leading a tour for foster kids around the Seattle University campus, where her son was going to college.

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Dalla Gasperina, who along with her husband, Lucio, was one of the founders of the Tommy Bahama clothing line, went to the Rev. Stephen Sundborg, the president of the university, describing her vision. He immediately embraced it, she said, because it was in line with the school’s social-justice mission.

But when she began asking for donations to create an endowment, Dalla Gasperina was met with skepticism that foster kids would succeed. “For the first years, pretty much the only donors we had were Lucio and me, and our personal friends,” she said.

Ten years later, Dalla Gasperina says she’s proved the naysayers wrong.

“If you just give a foster youth a fair chance, there’s no reason they can’t have unbelievable graduation rates and go on to be amazing, contributing citizens of the Seattle area,” she said.

Many of the program’s graduates have gone on to work in social services and foster-care programs, offering insights about the system from their own life experiences. The program’s first graduate, Paula Carvalho, is a network coordinator for The Mockingbird Society, a Seattle nonprofit that works to improve foster care and end youth homelessness. Another is in graduate school at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where she is helping that school set up its own program for foster youth.

Troubled years

Like so many kids in the foster-care system, Reynolds’ childhood was scarred by a dysfunctional relationship — in her case, with her mother. She bounced around through foster care, a mental-health hospital and group homes.

Eventually she landed in a group home in Wyoming, where she said kids fought, cried and rebelled. To escape that explosive environment, she threw herself into before- and after-school activities in high school: book club, theater, film club, radio club.

“For a couple of years, I didn’t see a point to going to college,” she said. “I thought, other working people do OK. I’m in the school of life, man.”

But at some point she realized her life was going nowhere. She started taking community-college classes in Seattle, where she had moved after high school. Then she heard about the Seattle University program.

Over the summer, the 25-year-old was one of just four students to be accepted into the program, which takes both incoming freshmen and transfer students.

At first, she was a little intimidated by the campus, thinking people would be elitist.

“But it’s not like that here. People are really nice. I’ve made friends. There’s no sense you don’t belong here.”

The program works hard to make sure foster kids are treated the same as everyone else. For example, they’re encouraged to study abroad, “because it completely transforms the college experience” for most students, Barbano said.

The program also brings scholarship recipients together so they can create their own support network.

Fostering Scholars is small — in 10 years, it’s accepted 60 students, graduated 30, and has 20 current enrollees. It’s selective — students must first gain entry to the university before they can apply.

The university has started a campaign to raise a $10 million endowment for the program, and has raised $3 million toward that goal. For the time being, annual costs are supplemented by donations and money from Seattle University’s coffers. Most students also qualify for federal and state financial aid.

At the state level, the Passport to College Promise Scholarship program provides scholarship money, too, as an incentive for colleges to recruit and retain foster students.

Knows firsthand

For Carlyle, the legislator, the issue is personal. For the first five years of his life, he was passed among family members while his mother dealt with mental-health issues. Although he was never in the foster-care system, he identifies closely with foster youth.

At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has introduced legislation that contains elements of the Seattle University program.

Meanwhile, Seattle University has gained such a reputation for its program that Barbano is constantly fielding calls for advice from other colleges.

Programs that help foster kids earn a degree can more than pay for themselves, she said, because they lessen the likelihood that kids who age out of the foster-care system will end up homeless or in jail.

For Reynolds, being at Seattle University has allowed her to plot out an ambitious future.

“I feel like I can better myself,” Reynolds said. “That feels so good.”