Treehouse, an organization that pairs youth in the foster care system with supportive coordinators, will expand its services in the new year after the nonprofit received a $500,000 donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The nonprofit, which works in the most densely populated parts of Washington state, plans to expand its program to all school districts in the state by 2022, and the surprise donation will help that expansion become a reality.
Treehouse’s primary program, Graduation Success, pairs education coordinators with foster care youth, referred to the nonprofit from social workers or the foster care system. The goal? To ensure that students in the foster care system graduate at the same rate as their peers.
Nationally, students in the foster care system struggle to graduate. Oregon youth in foster care graduate at 35%. Washington state does not list a foster care graduation rate in the most recent graduation data.
There are eight education coordinators in seven school districts in Spokane County. Coordinators meet with students once a week in schools, usually on their free hour or during lunch. Coordinators are part coach-part mentor, keeping students on track to graduate through goal-setting.
“The idea is that the coordinators are part-cheerleader, part-friend and really motivating youth to think about what they want their future to look like and help them set and move towards goals they envision for themselves,” said Jessica Ross, chief development officer at Treehouse.
The nonprofit served 231 youth in the region in 2019, and with the donation, expansion is likely.
Beyond finishing high school, Treehouse coordinators can help students with just-in-time funding, provided from the nonprofit for them to use on unplanned expenses or extracurricular activities like high school sports or summer camp.
In Spokane County, coordinators used $166,000 in just-in-time funding on their students in the 2018-2019 school year.
Youth connected to Treehouse in high school can continue receiving support into their next phase of life after graduation too. The program, called Launch Success, helps students find living-wage jobs, a plan to further their education through college or certification courses and housing.
Ross said one student who was attending college and had a car realized she needed new tires to stay safe. She could not afford them, but her coordinator was able to step in with just-in-time funding and help her.
If students have to change schools or even districts, Treehouse works to keep students in the program, ideally with a new coordinator in their new school or district. When Treehouse expanded from King County, where the nonprofit started, to Spokane in 2017, Ross said 12 students already knew about Treehouse from their experiences living in Seattle.
“They knew us because we had worked with them over there, which was really validating, and that’s one of the big pushes for expanding and being statewide,” Ross said.
So far, expansion in Spokane County alone has been swift. In 2017, four coordinators worked with 74 students, and this year, eight coordinators served 231 students.
Ross said they will base expansion efforts on needs, and will look to grow either geographically or add more staff depending on where students in foster care are going to school. Currently, Treehouse services are offered in nine counties statewide in dozens of school districts.
So far, more than 89% of the students getting Treehouse services in Spokane County are on track to finish high school in four or five years, data from the nonprofit shows. The state four-year graduation rate is 80.9%.
“The goal is to have high school youth graduating at the same rate as their peers and to have a plan to launch into adulthood,” Ross said.