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

Foster youth graduates with 4.0 GPA after help from mentor with special program

Shalynn Shepherd is photographed in front of Spokane Valley High School on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. She was recently adopted and works with Treehouse, a non-profit that supports foster youth.  (Kathy Plonka)

Shalynn Shepherd almost gave up on school.

That changed because of what she calls her support system.

The former foster youth graduated in June with a 4.0 GPA from Spokane Valley High School. Jonathan Chavez, an education specialist with the nonprofit Treehouse, worked with her to meet academic goals.

“Goal-setting made me want to work harder,” Shepherd said. “A goal is a good thing to get out there and try to do better.”

Treehouse supports foster youth in schools through a program called Graduation Success. The Seattle-based nonprofit works statewide and has nine employees in Spokane County who go to regional schools. It also funds student extracurricular activities.

Shepherd, 18, plans to study culinary arts at Spokane Community College this fall. She also gives credit to the support she received from a foster parent who adopted her a year ago, as well as an SVHS program allowing one-on-one time with teachers in project-based work.

Chavez said he and Shepherd talked regularly at school about her progress and grades. Treehouse offers incentives such as Amazon gift cards when academic goals are met.

He was impressed during her graduation.

“Her ceremony was really cool, and they do it differently at the school,” Chavez said. “They do it by each student instead of the whole class, and it’s very sentimental. It’s just your loved ones, your teachers and the principal.

Chavez said one of Shepherd’s teachers mentioned that the teen “had no desire to keep going with school” at one point.

“She was just giving up on school, so for him to see her graduate and take her schooling seriously and move onto SCC, it was huge. It was big for her, too. It was really sentimental to everyone to see that.”

Graduation Success has a mission to boost graduation rates among children in foster care. Its education specialists start working with students as early as eighth grade to prepare for high school, Chavez said.

Statewide, Treehouse is working alongside more than 6,000 youths in foster care. The nonprofit estimates that about 10,000 children of all ages are in foster care at any time in Washington.

When Graduation Success launched in 2012, the statewide graduation rate for youths in foster care was 36.5%. It rose to nearly 50% in 2019, and now is at about 53%, said Katie Adams, a Treehouse public relations manager.

A recent seven-year graduation rate for youths in foster care within Educational Service District 101 – which includes Spokane County – was 79%, she said. For Treehouse foster youths in ESD 101, that rate was 88%.

During the 2022-23 school year, Shepherd was among 199 Spokane County foster youths receiving Treehouse support. Last year for Spokane County students, the program served 202 youths in 32 schools.

This past week, Shepherd also planned to go to a once-a-year Treehouse pop-up store, scheduled Thursday at Spokane Community College. About 80 local foster youths were registered. The nonprofit uses such events to give their participants school supplies, clothing and information from different nonprofits providing foster support.

During her junior year, Shepherd did goal-setting with a different educational specialist. Early on, she said school could be frustrating, especially when she didn’t understand homework assignments.

Later in doing the project school work, she said teachers in the program met with her individually and helped if she needed to understand concepts.

Treehouse also paid for Shepherd’s cost to complete a driver’s education class, and for her senior photos.

Chavez said he will keep working with Shepherd through December. Next up, they plan to go over college scholarship opportunities. Shepherd works full time for Zip’s Drive-in.