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Editorial: Boost funding to help more foster kids graduate

A program that has quickly increased graduation rates for youths in foster care should be expanded.

By The Herald Editorial Board

As the state’s school districts continue work to raise graduation rates, a significant portion of that effort will need to focus on the approximately 10,000 children in the state’s foster care system.

Statewide, the overall graduation rate is now about 79 percent, although many individual school districts are reporting higher percentages for graduation within four years. But for youths in foster care, that statewide rate is as low as 43 percent in four years and 49 percent in five.

While foster care can take children out of abusive and unsafe situations, it can still be a disruptive experience, in particular to their education. The average youth in foster care endures three changes in home placement, and can lose between four and six months in academic progress. And children in foster care, because of past traumas, on average suffer post-traumatic stress at twice the rate of veterans of war.

Without the benefit of a high school diploma — and thus the opportunity for further career or college training — only about 3 percent of those who were in foster care will have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28 percent in the community at large. And 33 percent of those who were in foster care live below the poverty line as adults, a rate three times the national average. About 1 in 5 “alumni” of foster care will be homeless within a year of aging out of the system.

The lack of a high school diploma is a debilitating impact for each youth, but also for the community and state.

A 2016 analysis by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction found that a high school diploma can mean more than $285,000 in higher earnings over the course of a working life. And each individual diploma means more than $156,000 to taxpayers in increased tax revenue and health care savings during that time frame and more than $150,000 in economic benefit to the community.

Intervention with youths in the foster care system, however, is showing success in working with children’s innate desire to learn and improve and is showing marked gains in graduation rates, said Dawn Rains, chief policy and strategy officer with Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit that offers a range of academic and basic living services to the state’s youths in foster care, with the goal of achieving a graduation rate that is equal to their school peers.

Treehouse, Rains said, was formed 23 years ago by social workers with what is now the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, who raised money for basic needs and more to help those youths succeed.

The agency launched its Graduation Success program in 2012, through which education specialists help students in sixth through 12th grades plan for graduation and beyond; build problem-solving and self-advocacy skills; connects them to tutoring and college prep resources; develops a support system of caregivers, teachers, social workers and counselors; and resolves issues with school transition and compiling a record of school credits and achievement.

The program began in King County, but has since been expanded to serve 986 students in school districts statewide, including Everett and Marysville school districts in Snohomish County, and in school districts in Eastern and Western Washington.

Graduation rates for students in the program have risen quickly. For the participants in the Treehouse program, the four-year graduation rate for the class of 2018 was 69 percent; 83 percent for those needing five years to graduate. The program has marked similar achievements since 2014.

“We know this program works, and it’s still early in the life of the program,” Rains said.

Now Treehouse wants to build on its success. The nonprofit is asking the state Legislature to increase its funding for the program by $4 million. Matched by $3.5 million from Treehouse’s own fundraising, it could expand to more school districts and serve another 834 youths across the state, nearly doubling the size of the program. Additionally its seeking $600,000 to support its driver’s assistance program to connect students with driver’s education and help with obtaining license and auto insurance, also key to further schooling and jobs after graduation.

Treehouse is also advocating for policy changes related to its mission, legislation that would reduce foster care caseloads and help limit caseworker turnover, with the goal of reducing the length of time spent in foster care; and legislation that would end the use of detention for some nonviolent offenses, including running away and truancy.

The Legislature hears many funding requests for worthy programs, but few offer the quick return on investment that is shown in the increase in graduation rates and the knowledge that more students will be able to continue training for careers, better avoid a life of poverty and find success in their community and in daily lives.

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