Half of teens in foster care don’t graduate. New Whatcom program hopes to change that

Teens in foster care often face constant upheaval as they move from home to home and school to school.

It’s a situation that Ernest Henderson has seen personally. He grew up in foster care and wished he could have had the consistency of his peers.

“Growing up in foster care, you feel very alone, and you don’t feel supported. It can be a very difficult life,” he said.

The nonprofit Henderson now works with —Treehouse — helps to serve as that fixed point for high school students in foster care is expanding to include Whatcom County youths.

The nonprofit provides various programs aimed at helping children in foster care. It started in King County in 2012 and previous expansions include Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish counties. The nonprofit’s leaders announced plans Tuesday to expand its Graduation Success program into Whatcom, Skagit, Thursday, Benton and Franklin counties.

While Henderson has succeeded, he is in the minority for students in foster care. Many of them switch high schools two or three times a year, and each move can cost them up to six months of academic progress, Henderson said.

The state stops providing foster care for many of them when they turn 18, so if they don’t finish high school by then, they’re unlikely to ever finish.

When these factors are combined, it means less than half of children in foster care graduate.

Treehouse brings stability to foster teens

Counselors from Treehouse help provide stability for students in foster care, Henderson said.

Henderson, a regional manager in the Spokane office, has seen the program make a difference. Last year there were 20 seniors in the program, and all of them graduated. Statewide, 82 percent of the program’s participants graduate in five years.

Right now the program is working with about 200 students in Spokane. The counselors meet with them weekly to find out how they are doing and whether there is anything they need. That can range from making sure they get to school or extracurricular activities to taking them shopping for prom dresses or tuxedos.

“Our goal is to remove barriers to graduation,” he said. “I would describe it as a mentoring role. We aren’t trying to supplant the social worker or school. We’re here to support the student.”

Treehouse plans to continue to extend the service, Henderson said. The goal is to be in every community in the state.

To participate, a student needs to have an open case with the state Department of Children, Youth and Families and be in a foster home. The program will follow them if they end up changing schools, as long as there are counselors in that area.

“I would have loved to have this when I was growing up,” Henderson said. “ Oftentimes our staff serves as that fixed point in their life. They know they have that one person that is there for them to help them.”

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.