By The Herald Editorial Board
As high school commencement exercises take place across the county in coming days, the caps and gowns of graduates provide all the evidence one needs of each student’s success in completing her or his public school education; and with it the hopes for further education, careers and success in their communities.
Beneath the mortar board and fabric, however, the students’ individual stories and accomplishments are less obvious: the grades, the academic and athletic honors, the activities and interests, and the individual struggles that many had to overcome to be able to reach out and accept those diplomas.
For foster youths in Washington state, the path toward graduation is especially difficult; its hardships force too many from that path, often, as they near aging out of the supports available through the foster care system, leading some into poverty and even homelessness. An estimated 1 in 5 foster care alumni will be homeless within a year of aging out at 21.
Nationwide, fewer than 50 percent of foster care youth will graduate high school. For Washington state, as recently as the 2013-14 school year, the graduation rate for high school seniors in foster care was as low as 39 percent. That low rate of educational success is a reflection of the fact that the average foster care youth will face at least three changes in placement in homes — and thus, moves to different schools — and that can mean a loss of up to six months of academic progress for each move.
Yet those numbers are improving, and there are hopes, especially following significant investments this year by the state Legislature in an ongoing program for foster care youths, that their rate of graduation can eventually rival that of their non-foster care peers, even as those overall graduation rates also climb. For the class of 2020, the four-year graduation rate for foster care youth had improved to 50.4 percent, with 21 percent continuing their high school educations, even as 28 percent dropped out. The overall statewide graduation rate for 2020 was 83 percent, with about 9 percent dropping out.
What has made a difference over the last eight school years for an increasing number of foster care youths is a program called Graduation Success, operated by Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates and works with the state’s more than 10,000 youths in foster care.
Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, Treehouse’s Graduation Success has worked with a growing number of high school students across the state. The program partners and supports the student and works with those in a student’s life, including foster parents, teachers, social workers, counselors and mentors, providing supports and services tailored to the student’s needs. The program works with students to create a plan for high school graduation, college and career, builds problem-solving and self-advocacy skills and connects to resources for tutoring and support systems.
Currently, the program serves about 1,300 high school students each year in school districts throughout the state, including in the Everett, Edmonds and Marysville school districts. But the program hasn’t been available in all school districts, particularly in some rural areas. A $4.89 million investment by the state Legislature earlier this spring — with a commitment by Treehouse to match that figure with $1 million in private fundraising — will allow Treehouse to expand the program to another 600 high school students each year, said Dawn Rains, chief policy and strategy officer for Treehouse and, herself, a former foster parent.
Those enrolled in Graduation Success in recent years have shown improved graduation rates; the success rate among the program’s students has been above 65 percent in recent years. And the program’s goal is to see 90 percent graduate by the 2026-27 school year.
The investment by lawmakers in the program is a reflection of the success it’s shown thus far, and, Rains noted, a bit of a welcome surprise during a budget year for the Legislature that began with great uncertainty because of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you had asked me six months ago what I thought possible, it would have been a much bleaker picture,” Rains said in a recent interview. There were concerns for the potential for deep cuts to social services in particular.
But aid made available to the state from federal pandemic relief packages and improved economic forecasts for the state allowed for a range of investments, including in Treehouse’s Graduation Success programs as well as others existing programs for all foster youths.
The question for coming years, Rains admits, is one of sustainability of funding for those programs. The investment, she said, allows some “bridge time” as the economy continues its recovery and as questions are answered regarding the capital gains tax that the Legislature adopted as a significant source of revenue, which now faces a legal challenge. But this year’s investment allows Treehouse time to show the investment is worthwhile.
“We have an opportunity to show this was an important investment and that it will show its efficiency and ability to save the state money in the long run,” she said.
Beyond financial investments, the Legislature also adopted important policies that will benefit foster youths. Among legislation that passed were bills that:
Require schools districts to ensure that each school building has an established point of contact for each youth in foster care to coordinate serves and resources;
Modifies licensing requirements for the relatives of foster youths, 45 percent of whom live with a relative, to receive state foster care stipends; and
Creates community transition services for youth exiting juvenile rehabilitation facilities, including behavioral therapy and substance abuse treatment for incarcerated youths.
When a child is placed in foster care, the state and its residents acknowledge their responsibility for that child’s continued education and well-being. Programs like Graduation Success are necessary to assure more can move on with education and careers.
Among those Graduation Success students who will receive their diplomas this year is Zamira, who was paired with her Treehouse coordinator, Ruby Zarate. Zamira had worked with Zarate for a little more than a year. Now in addition to a high school diploma, she also recently learned she had been accepted into Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, and was awarded a full-ride, four-year scholarship, worth $80,000.
“I didn’t think college was going to be an actual path for me,” Zamira said in a story on the Treehouse website, “but Ruby was there to tell me it was absolutely possible for me.”
That’s the opportunity that is owed to every one of the more than 10,000 children in foster care in the state; to reach out and receive the diploma each earned.