Education nonprofit expands programs to Snohomish County

Treehouse is a nonprofit dedicated to furthering educational opportunities for youth in Foster Care

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A Washington nonprofit that advocates for educational equality for youth in foster care has expanded its services to previously unserved school districts in the state, including Snohomish County.

Snohomish County is part of this expansion for Treehouse, which was founded in 1988. Treehouse has worked directly with schools for years to support youth in foster care, but needed agreements with individual districts. State legislation passed in 2021 and Treehouse was allocated $4.89 million for the work. The expansion began in 2017.

Treehouse has a variety of programs, with all providing various types of academic support. The organization began 35 years ago after a few social workers got together and had a book sale.

“From there, it kind of took off,” said Katie Adams, the content and PR manager for Treehouse. “There wasn’t an organization doing this work at the time.”

There were 8,894 youth in foster care in 2021, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Adams said 6,400 youth in Washington were served by their programs in 2022.

One of the organization’s most important goals is to improve graduation rates among youth in foster care in Washington. In 2013, the graduation rate for youth in foster care was 36%. It is now 53%, a number that Treehouse would like to get to 90% by 2027, Adams said.

“We’re also one of the only nonprofits that are looking at the intersection of foster care and education,” Adams said. “So when we’re in these different education spaces (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction), different state agencies, we’re the only ones talking about foster care. When we’re in foster care spaces, we’re also the only ones talking about education.”

Children in foster care face more challenges to achieve a good education. Moving schools is commonplace and directly correlates to student performance. Youth in foster care can lose around six months of academic progress per school change.

Compounding the issue is placement. Temporary placements are routine and there are not enough full-time foster parents in the state. Group homes are a stopgap, but they can also fill up. Mental health issues can increase in congregate care and youth in foster care who are placed in group homes are 2.5 times more likely to face incarceration.

Some kids end up spending numerous nights in hotels simply because there is not a place for them to sleep. According to data complied by Treehouse, there has been a 468% increase in hotel stays among youth in foster care since 2017 in Washington. In fiscal year 2022, there were 4,682 hotel stays in Washington by children and youth who were under age 18 and in care.

Without a consistent school and a safe place to live, education can be difficult to focus on.

One of the biggest programs is called Graduation Success, which connects youth in foster care to an education specialist with the organization.

The education specialist coordinates with caregivers, schools and the state. They are often involved with meetings regarding the youth’s future and become someone for them to go to for academic help.

“One of the first things me and the counselor do is to talk to them about, ‘Okay, you went to this high school and this high school,’ to make sure we get those transcripts,” said Christian Madruga, a long-time education specialist with Treehouse. “Every credit does matter. We want to make sure we have a complete picture.”

“If those credits don’t transfer, that puts them behind to graduate or finish high school,” Adams added.

Other services now available statewide for youth in foster care also include Just-In-Time Funding, which envelops the Treehouse Store and Driver’s Assistance programs. The store allows foster youth to either visit a brick and mortar store in Seattle, or order things such as clothing, shoes, school supplies, books and tickets to events and have them delivered. Youth are given a certain amount of credit to purchase items in the store.

Just-In-Time funding helps with school fees, college application fees, extracurricular activities, hair care and other barriers kids may come across that would prevent them from exploring their interests.

Even before the expansion, which began on April 3, Adams said that 132 Snohomish County youth in foster care were already utilizing the program. The amount of financial help those students received was over $150,000 for Just-In-Time related expenses. Tutoring is the most common funding request, Adams said.

Just-In-Time includes a driver’s assistance program, which helps ease the process of learning to drive and getting a license. The program will pay for extra driving lessons in addition to other costs associated with driver’s education.

“I have a young person who’s in a group home, in our driver’s ed program, but they don’t have someone like my kids have, where I can take them out to practice driving,” Madruga said. “They don’t have that … it’s huge for those kids to get the extra five, six, seven hours of practice they won’t get otherwise because no one in the group home is able to lend them a car.”

The programs do not end at adulthood. For those 18 to 21 — that group is also often referred to as transition-age youth — there is help and support. Only about 6% of youth who have been in foster care end up graduating college with a bachelor’s degree.

Treehouse is looking to change that statistic as well. Its “Launching into Adulthood” program following a high school degree or equivalent. The program involves services to assist with college or apprenticeship applications, resume work and money management skills.

“I’m here to advocate for you. If you wanna graduate and go to college, let’s hit it,” Madruga said. “If you want to get a job, lets do that. It’s really making sure I help them navigate and find resources.”

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