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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Launching foster success: Nonprofit coaches youth as they transition from foster care to college, workforce

Rachel Harwood, 18, who attends North Central High School, is looking forward to getting support with Launch Success, a new program by the nonprofit Treehouse that helps foster youth after they graduate from high school. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

At North Central High School, Rachel Harwood has excelled in science. She also is a youth in foster care who will study biochemistry this fall at the University of Washington.

Harwood, 18, is realistic about facing many challenges that are typical for college students, but she already has a support system in place. She’ll regularly talk to a Launch Success coach, part of nonprofit Treehouse’s new program statewide supporting foster youth as they enter adulthood.

“I’m looking forward to having someone helping me in a difficult transition period; everything is changing right now,” said Harwood, who has received the UW Presidential Scholarship.

“It’s really exciting, but there is going to be a lot of new and difficult things to deal with. I know college can be kind of a lonely and trying time, so it will be nice having an organization and an individual backing me through that.”

While at North Central, she was in a parallel Treehouse program called Graduation Success. Harwood wants to become a pediatric research oncologist, and she has set goals with Treehouse education coordinator Harrianne Nathanial.

In Seattle, Treehouse was founded in 1988 to support the extra needs of foster children. Its Graduation Success began in 2012 to boost that population’s high school graduation rates. Both that program and Launch Success are now in nine counties, including Spokane.

This year, Graduation Success is working with 153 youth in Spokane County. About 80% of those students are expected to be part of Launch Success for ages 18-26, where they’ll receive ongoing academic and career coaching and funds for school fees and job supplies.

Treehouse leaders say 1 in 5 foster youth end up homeless within a year of aging out of the system. Launch Success will support its Graduation Success alumni to reach goals for college or job training as well as stable housing.

Jonathan Beach, 18, is a Washington State University freshman working with Launch Success coach René Jones. In foster care since 2014, he graduated in June from On-Track Academy in Spokane and was in the Graduation Success program.

Beach is studying philosophy pre-law and political science. Treehouse’s support has included recommending scholarships and providing money to buy textbooks and supplies. Jones recently helped him get a new laptop after his broke.

“I needed a laptop right away, so I told René, and she jumped on that,” he said. “Within a few days, I received a new laptop. That’s definitely a necessity when you’re in college.”

If he can’t locate Jones right away, he can go to Treehouse’s website and submit a question.

Beach said he became determined to go to college, and his first Treehouse coordinator sat down with him to consider different options.

“I also got into UW,” he said. “She and I sat down and we made a list of pros and cons of what would be best about each university. It definitely helped me decide which university to attend.”

Janis Avery, Treehouse CEO, said it didn’t make sense to drop relationships with foster youth after high school. The nonprofit saw youth enter college or trades, but too many of them hit obstacles that took them off track.

“The students who go to community college by and large have to find market-rate housing in their communities, and they tend to be working full time while going to school full time, juggling all of those adult responsibilities,” Avery said.

“For any young person in those conditions, it’s challenging, but for youth in foster care it’s additionally challenging because they tend to have weak social networks. They’ve been moved around a lot in their lives and don’t have strong relationships with adults who plan to care about them forever.”

Foster youth don’t necessarily have a parent or adult to call if the car breaks down, a financial aid check gets delayed, or they hear from a debt collection agency.

“These are fairly small barriers in a middle class young adult’s life, but in one of our participant’s lives, it can take them right off the road and plunge them into leaving school, homelessness, all kinds of challenges,” Avery said.

“We decided after listening to our foster youth, watching this go on, doing surveys and focus groups and some experimentation last year, that we’d develop a strategy that stayed with them.”

Among all foster youth in Graduation Success, Treehouse saw its highest on-time graduation rate in 2018 at 69%, meaning participants completed high school or received a GED in four years.

Under a different measure of a five-year extended period for graduation, the nonprofit’s latest data for its program participants showed a class of 2017 graduation rate of 82%.

Treehouse leaders say foster kids lose four to six months of academic progress with each move or placement. On average, children in foster care change placements three times.

Nationally, less than 50% of youth in foster care graduate from high school by age 18, the nonprofit says. Its data indicates that generally in Washington, 43% of foster youth statewide graduate with their original class and 49% in five years.

That compares with overall rates for every youth in the state, at 79% on-time and 82% extended, according to Treehouse data. The nonprofit has a five-year goal for youth in foster care statewide to graduate from high school at the same rate as peers.

Treehouse specialists meet with middle school and high school students weekly, even in summers, in roles the nonprofit describes as part-coach, part-parent, and frequently, a friend.

The foster youth are encouraged to set goals. Other support might include help to buy a prom dress, pay for dance class and receive gift cards as educational goals are met, Harwood said.

“There are lots of little gift cards you can apply for as you make goals,” she said.

She also had someone to talk to in her coach Harrianne Nathanial. They shared a bond as Harwood went through her foster mother’s recent death from cancer.

“Harrianne’s dad was staying at the same hospice place a year before … so it’s been really nice to be able to confide in someone who knows what it’s like to go through cancer and lose someone who is really important to you.”

Nathanial said Treehouse is designed to help foster kids reach goals.

“It’s just breaking down any barrier,” Nathanial said. “Treehouse tries to provide those things they need and we maintain connections, making sure they’re staying on top of grades. It’s us guiding them on their journey, rather than us telling them what their journey is.”

Treehouse serves more than 7,000 youth statewide across all of its programs. Graduation Success is partially state-funded, while Launch Success is now funded solely by donations.

The nonprofit estimates that between 9,000 and 10,000 children of all ages are in foster care at any time in Washington. Ongoing support should be there, even past age 18, Avery said.

“Young adults coming out of middle class families have these kinds of advantages automatically; it’s a benefit of a well-resourced family,” she said. “These young people equally need those resources and benefits, but otherwise won’t get them.”