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Shawn Vestal: Mentoring lifts the grades of foster care kids failing school

Rayanne, 16, now a junior at Lewis and Clark High School was a failing student last year, after being in foster care for six months. She began working with Brittany Wells, of Treehouse, and ended up failing just two of her classes. They're working on a plan to keep improving in the year to come, and to go on to college. Rayanne is thinking about studying law: "Everyone deserves justice and the right to be heard." (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Rayanne, 16, now a junior at Lewis and Clark High School was a failing student last year, after being in foster care for six months. She began working with Brittany Wells, of Treehouse, and ended up failing just two of her classes. They're working on a plan to keep improving in the year to come, and to go on to college. Rayanne is thinking about studying law: "Everyone deserves justice and the right to be heard." (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Halfway through the last academic term, Rayanne was failing every one of her classes at Lewis and Clark High School.

All six of them.

Then she began meeting with Brittany Wells in Room 205.

Now she’s heading into her junior year with high hopes and a determination to go to college.

None of it was brief or simple for Rayanne – whom I agreed to identify by first name only. She’s a 16-year-old who’s been in foster care for about six months, and the disruptions and challenges she faces are much greater than the typical student’s.

But she and Wells managed to turn her academic ship around, through hard work, regular contact, goal-setting and building a relationship. By the end of last year, Rayanne had passed all but two classes. Now she’s starting her junior year, entering new courses and figuring out how to clean up those failing grades so she can move on to college in a couple years.

“My life had taken a really sharp turn, and everything was thrown off balance,” said Rayanne. “Without (Wells), I would have failed this year really bad.”

Wells is a graduation success coordinator for Treehouse, a nonprofit that provides support for foster students in some of the state’s biggest high schools. The organization started in Seattle, and moved into Spokane and Tacoma last year. Statewide, it provides services for about 7,000 foster children, and Treehouse specialists worked with 86 of the 97 Spokane high school students in foster care last academic year.

Treehouse, which was started by frustrated state social workers in 1998, receives about 80 percent of its funding from donations, with the state providing about $3 million a year.

Last year, Treehouse reached an 89 percent extended graduation rate for its students – better than the five-year rate for all students statewide. Foster students who aren’t in the program fare much worse – about 1 in 2 won’t graduate at all. While the state targets “on-time” graduation as its primary goal, many students who face disruptions in their lives may need more time to finish. Given the difficulties most foster kids face, Treehouse identified that extended graduation rate as its goal.

Janis Avery, CEO of Treehouse, said the organization has achieved its success by developing specialized plans for each student and by trying to help each student become “self-determining” by participating in the goal-setting. She said Treehouse has to help students who don’t necessarily meld with the expectations of the system.

“School is kind of like a factory model with a conveyer belt, and a young person usually gets on that conveyer belt in kindergarten and travels right through graduation,” she said.

But foster students face dramatically larger challenges than other students. They’ve typically come out of traumatic circumstances, have experienced a lot of pain and disruption, and may not have the most basic requirements needed to keep up in school, whether it’s a dependable place to study, the right supplies, or just someone looking over their shoulder to make sure their work is turned in.

That’s what Wells does for Rayanne and the other students she works with. She keeps track of her students’ attendance and assignments by computer, and if she sees the beginnings of a problem – a missed class or failed assignment – she can start working immediately to try to prevent the problems from worsening.

“Data is one of the most useful tools we have,” Wells said. “How’d she do on that test she studied for? How’d she do on that assignment? Was she able to get that permission slip in? All kinds of things.”

Shawn Jordan, a high school program director for Spokane Public Schools, said Treehouse works by applying some of the same intervention principles the district has used itself in some other programs: Providing individualized attention, keeping careful track of potential warning signs, and being there for students in whatever ways they need.

“Having an adult, a mentor, a support person inside the school that is getting to know that student and that student’s needs and helping them develop a plan for the future – it has a huge impact,” Jordan said. “It is a lot about relationships.”

Broadly speaking, Spokane schools have dramatically improved their graduation rates over the past decade. Last year, the on-time graduation rate was 86 percent, compared to 62 percent about a decade ago, Jordan said.

However, when students don’t reach that on-time goal, it doesn’t mean they’re done – as the Treehouse program shows. And keeping those students in foster care engaged in school is a crucial tool for helping them have better lives.

Children in foster care who don’t graduate from high school are more likely to end up homeless or facing a raft of other problems. And giving them that fifth year is a key to preventing them from dropping out.

Last year, Rayanne said she’d simply lost her motivation for attending class and turning in her work. When she began meeting with Wells, the first steps they took were fairly simple: getting Rayanne more organized, with a planner, and boosting her confidence. They set her up in an after-school club that provided a stable and consistent study space. They met regularly in Room 205 to discuss her progress.

“We set small goals here and there,” Wells said.

Rayanne and Wells worked over the summer on setting up a space in her home where she can have consistent, quiet, focused time. Earlier this week, she was discussing options in Wells’ office for how she would retake the two science courses she failed last year – she’s got to get them off her record to go on to college, she said.

“I know I have good people to support me, and that helps a lot,” she said.

Wells added, “I have full confidence she will do great.”


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