Treehouse, a Seattle nonprofit that serves students in foster care, set an ambitious goal to raise graduation rates, which have shot up in the past five years.
When Brianna had to move from Renton to Bellevue during her senior year of high school, she wasn’t sure if she could maintain the A’s and B’s she was earning at Renton High School. Her foster parents were moving out of the state, so she was on her own for the first time.
Such a big change would be a challenge for any student. But with the help of Treehouse, a nonprofit that helps foster-care youth, she arranged a schedule where she could come in during third period, giving her more time to work on college applications in the morning.
That helped her maintain her grades and earn her diploma, the 18-year-old said. Of the 80 students in Treehouse’s Graduation Success program who were supposed to graduate this year, Brianna was one of 54 to do so. That’s an on-time graduation rate of 68 percent, 15 percentage points higher than the state average for youth in foster care.
As Brianna set and met her goals, Treehouse did, too. When the organization launched Graduation Success in 2012, it established a five-year goal that students in foster care across King County would graduate at the same rate as their classmates.
They have yet to make that goal — the on-time graduation rate for the class of 2017 was 68 percent, while the state rate was 79 percent. But Treehouse’s on-time rate was still double what it was when the program launched, and the percent of students in the class of 2016 who graduated in five years was 89 percent, which exceeded the state’s so-called extended graduation rate.
“We knew it was a big stretch, but we had everyone on board … ” said Jessica Ross, Treehouse’s chief development officer. “A lot of people told us we couldn’t do it and we were crazy.”
About 700 students are in the Graduation Success program in King County, Spokane and Tacoma. They work with Treehouse staff members called education specialists who work in middle and high schools. Education specialists fill different roles based on what students need — a coach, parent, mentor, or advocate — and they provide consistency for students whose lives are often inconsistent.
“Our education specialists are the reason why this program works and why we have been successful,” Ross said.
Throughout the year, Taji Ellis, an education specialist at Renton High School, meets with students to discuss their grades and attendance. Together, they map out short-term and long-term goals and come up with a plan for the students to reach them. If a student wants to be an astronaut, for example, Ellis and the student will look at how he can work toward that goal. And if he’s getting D’s in his science class, she’ll arrange a tutor.
“We want the students to be in the driver’s seat,” Ellis said, “We’re in the passenger seat and driving with them.”
Ellis helped Leroy, a Renton graduate who just finished his first year at Grays Harbor College, with writing out goal sheets. She helped Briana write college applications and a résumé she needed to apply for summer jobs. Ellis also connected Briana with other Treehouse programs like Little Wishes, which helps pay for extracurricular activities Briana otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.
The students’ last names aren’t being used to protect their privacy, at the request of Treehouse.
Over the past five years, there were some bumps, Treehouse staff said, and they had to adjust the graduation goal along the way. They learned, for example, that many students in foster care needed an additional year to graduate. Kids lose about four to six months of progress every time they have to move schools, Ross said, and that often makes on-time graduation impossible.
But most of the students in Graduation Success’ Class of 2016 who didn’t graduate on time kept going to school, graduating in their fifth year. That brought their extended graduation rate to 89 percent.
“The goals we set for graduation equity mirror perfectly with how we work with students,” Ross said. “ … If you can dream about what you want in the future, you can backtrack all the goals you need to reach.”
Since graduation, Brianna has been busy with an internship and a job. She’ll be attending Seattle Pacific University in the fall, but isn’t quite sure what she wants to study. She’s deciding that with Ellis, who she credits with helping her each step of the way.
Ellis, she said, “contributed to my success.”