By Ken Schutz
Only about half of all youths in foster care in our state graduate from high school on time. Placement changes, school transitions, and trauma cause youths in foster care to fall behind their peers on every academic measure – attendance, grades, test scores, and graduation rates. As an educator who cares deeply about all of our students and their futures, these numbers break my heart.
Eight years ago, Treehouse decided enough was enough and launched Graduation Success, an innovative program that was committed to tackling poor graduation rates in King County with an eye toward eventually expanding statewide. Today, Treehouse has expanded the program to 10 counties across our state and serves about 1,300 high school students. The organization is widely regarded as Washington’s leading agency focused on educational equity for youths and young adults in foster care.
There are roughly 600 remaining students statewide without access to Graduation Success. Additional funding would allow them to expand, partnering with these remaining youth to achieve their own goals. When the expansion is complete, Washington will be a national leader in leveling the educational playing field for youths impacted by foster care.
As principal of Ferris High School over the past seven years, I have witnessed firsthand how Treehouse’s program has directly led to a dramatic increase in school success for my students experiencing foster care. An incredible 75% of youths who stick with Treehouse’s program for a fifth year or more complete high school. Given the challenges, that’s truly inspiring and a stark contrast with the worst educational outcomes out of any other student group in our state.
Completing high school is one of the biggest foundational barriers faced by youths in care, and the consequences of not earning a diploma are dire. They face significantly higher rates of poverty, incarceration, homelessness, early parenting and mental health challenges, including PTSD (58% ). Youths experiencing foster care are disproportionally youths of color. These are our students who are furthest from educational opportunity in our schools.
A recent survey conducted by Treehouse on the needs of 1,175 participants in its programs found the situation is only getting worse during the pandemic, with youths in foster care absorbing an unfair burden of the consequences from school closures. Statewide, over half are disengaged from school and 44% require academic remediation, tutoring or homework assistance right now.
Here at Ferris High School, Treehouse partners with 25 to 30 youths every year. Treehouse provides a safe adult advocate for our foster students. These advocates are so important in building a positive relationship with a trusted adult. The most powerful results of this partnership that I see the most in my students is the personal empowerment and individualized support this program offers. Graduating high school is just one of the many goals set and achieved. Treehouse listens to what the youth want out of life and works with them to take the steps to be successful. School engagement, attendance and grades all increase, and more youths pursue extracurricular activities when they have necessary educational and emotional support.
This results in youths who feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to school, persevering through challenges as they make plans for the future. Simply having someone who they can consistently rely on – regardless of their personal situation – makes all the difference to youth. The transformation I’ve witnessed is truly revolutionary.
There’s currently no other program like Graduation Success for youth in this state. Treehouse is asking the Washington State Legislature for an additional investment of $5 million so it can provide services to the remaining 600 youths in Spokane and beyond. We have a responsibility to utilize state funding in the most effective manner and in the long-run; it’s a sound fiscal decision for all of us, with every high school dropout costing taxpayers $581,156 in services, treatment and lost productivity throughout their life. We have a special responsibility to our students in foster care – the youth for whom the State has become parent.
While seeing the compelling results of Graduation Success brings me much optimism, I know there’s much more progress that needs to be made. There are counties in our area, such as Walla Walla, Grant, Chelan and Kittitas, where these services aren’t available. As someone who has seen how successful this program model is, I call upon our communities and representatives to support Treehouse to ask to expand this funding.
Every student deserves to graduate and pursue their dreams. Every student.
Ken Schutz is principal at Joel E. Ferris High School and past president of the Association of Washington School Principals.
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