Treehouse: Blazing a Path to Graduation for Foster Youth
In addition to providing essential support services to 6,000 foster youth and their caregivers each year, Treehouse has committed as an organization to a bold mission: To ensure that foster youth in King County graduate high school at the same rate as their peers by 2017. Acknowledged as an innovative creator of program blueprints designed to address the essential education and enrichment needs of kids in foster care, Treehouse over recent years has put into operation a unique educational support program, Graduation Success, to meet this audacious goal. Why audacious? Due to the extreme challenges foster kids face, less than half of foster youth presently graduate high school on time; fewer than 2% go on to earn a four-year college degree.
To affect this dramatic change in graduation rates means that Treehouse will double the number of middle and high school students being served from 400 to over 800 in 17 school districts. Placed between child welfare and school systems, the nonprofit is uniquely positioned to coordinate better outcomes for our foster youth. ParentMap recently got to chat with one of the Treehouse team’s frontline quarterbacks, Essence Batson, an inspiring and deeply dedicated education specialist who works directly with foster students in area schools to provide the resources, services and individualized support each needs to graduate on time and with a vision for his or her future. Most importantly, she would tell you herself, she works to provide what might help most of all to secure a better future: A consistent relationship they can trust.
What drew you to the education specialist role at Treehouse?
I received a bachelor’s degree in communication at Seattle University and a masters in communications and leadership from Gonzaga University. My original objective was to work in broadcasting. I worked in radio for five years prior to working with youth. Graduating right at the peak of the economic downturn, it was tough to find full-time positions. I was interning at a crisis center for at-risk youth at the time, and the experience really opened my eyes to the underbelly of what was going on in our society and in our city. I had grown up a very privileged child in a single-parent home; my mom was in the military. Being exposed to what was going on with our youth at the crisis center made me want to give more of what I had — to share the best of my abilities and the self-discipline that I developed in my home. Seeing kids at the crisis center for whom that was not natural inspired me to give back. It became a passion for me — I want to be good at what I do to help ensure that these kids get what they need to succeed in their lives.
I then came to Treehouse and it has been a wonderful experience so far. The culture of the organization is great. I thrive off of energy, and the energy there keeps me going; the people are so passionate about what they do. It is a well-oiled machine.
Education is a lifeline for kids in foster care. Share your perspective on the graduation gap for foster care youth.
Treehouse’s goal is to level the playing field for our students. To help them achieve at the same rate as their peers, despite the barriers they encounter. In Washington State, approximately 65% of all youth who enter foster care do so because of neglect; 35% due to physical or sexual abuse. Kids dealing with trauma have a much harder time retaining information and learning in the same ways their peers do. The students that we work with encounter a lot of barriers — a primary one is moving placements, which is disruptive and causes them to fall behind academically. A good percentage of our students are as a result enrolled in special education programs or services designed to help them succeed.
Currently less than half the students in foster care graduate on time. When they age out of the foster care system, these kids experience high rates of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness and substance abuse. Studies of foster care alumni show that 40% of young women in foster care have been pregnant by the age of 19.
At Treehouse, we feel it is the responsibility of the community to help the children of foster care, because they are not in foster care through any choice of their own. Another way to look at it is that investing in the lives of these students actually affects us financially as a society. Annual savings to taxpayers generated by preventing one high school student from dropping out is estimated to be $10,500 for each year of the remainder of that dropout’s life. The annual earning power of a high school graduate is 49% higher than that of a peer who did not complete high school; the annual earning power of a college graduate is 179% higher than a peer who did not complete high school. Our goal at Treehouse is for foster youth in King County to graduate high school at the same rate as their peers with a plan for their future by 2017. We want to help them become functioning members of society and not be stigmatized by the fact that they were in foster care through no choice of their own.
What are the success factors for high school graduation that the Treehouse program is designed to improve?
Treehouse has an ABC Plus model, which stands for Attendance, Behavior, Course Completion. It is connected to a Check and Connect study that we have implemented over the last two years. Treehouse has hired Check and Connect mentors in up to 14 schools to date and the plan is expand the program throughout King County by 2017.
Check and Connect mentors are people already working onsite — most of them are assistants or coaches or hold other part-time positions in the school. We ask the mentor to check in with our students, which we group in tiers. Tier 1 students are receiving our basic level of services; we check in with them and make sure that their grades and attendance are on track. Tier 2 students might be flagging in one of those areas; mentors work to make the student aware of the situation and get them moving in the right direction to improve. If we have a student with multiple tardies or skips in a class, we try to head that off proactively. Then we have Tier 3 students who may have behavioral issues or who have dropped out; in these cases, it is the Check and Connect mentor’s responsibility to contact the Treehouse Education Specialist — which is my position — and let them know when there are issues arising at the school.
Of the many hats you wear as an education specialist, what would you say is the most important to the students themselves?
Of course we have our goals and objectives when meeting with our students — we come prepared to talk to them about why they missed school or got a D in this one class — but realistically the relationships with our students are more important than reaching the goals. For example, I have one student who is pregnant right now and has a 2-year-old son and she got kicked out of her placement last week. I spent the entire day trying to make sure she had food vouchers and researched the nearest food bank so she and her son could eat. There are a lot of different things that come up.
For a lot of our students trust does not come easy. Their foundation, the people they grew up with, their family members haven’t been the most trustworthy; starting with the first people you’re supposed to be able to trust: your parents. So building a relationship is fundamental to have any type of effect or make any headway with these students. I have to listen to their story first, I have to hear them out, because, regardless of what I am trying to instill in them or what practices we want to use to get them on track, whatever is happening at home or if their basic needs are not being met outside of school, it’s not going to matter. They are not going to be able to focus in class if they don’t have a place to sleep at night. We try to just be there for them.
How many kids do you work with in a typical week?
The average caseload is usually between 20 to 30 students. Throughout the week I work in five different schools; at one of my schools I see 24 students, so I have set hours there Tuesdays and Thursdays where I go in and meet with students. On average per student, it won’t be a long meeting — maybe 10 to 12 minutes per student. I have access to their grades and attendance, so I’m either praising them for the good job they are doing or talking about strategies for helping them be in class or get better focus.
How does Treehouse measure the impacts of its graduation success efforts?
We have a data system where we enter all of our efforts. It is called Efforts to Outcomes. Each student is enrolled into the data system — this includes all their basic information and a summary of their situation. We record notes from all our meetings, and then we have a data team that evaluates these efforts. We gather and input their grades and attendance to keep track of trends. So far, it looks like our Check and Connect program is effective and working.
What aspects of your work give you the most satisfaction?
Each student has his or her own story and victories. For me, my victories are based on their small victories. If I had a student who had a D or an E three weeks ago and he raised it to a C, that’s a victory.
So I guess the satisfaction comes in just seeing the incremental progress. I don’t expect any of them to go from zero to 100; I don’t expect their trauma to just go away; I don’t expect for all of them to be perfectly behaved or have a 4.0 — although I do have a few students who are close to a 4.0! But small victories... I have a student who is on her third scholarship right now, she’s a senior who has done Running Start for the past two years.
And then I have those students who have dropped out. It is discouraging. But, consistency is key — being there, especially when they are down, making sure that they know you believe in them and you want them to succeed. I had a student who didn’t come to school for two or three months and then he showed up at Treehouse one day and asked for my card, saying he wanted to apply to an alternative program at a community college. I celebrate each of these things — they keep me going.
How can readers best involve themselves in understanding and supporting the work that Treehouse does?
You can volunteer your time, help with events. We have a huge volunteer program at Treehouse, with tons of opportunities to volunteer throughout the year. Go to our website to get the information; we have a volunteer coordinator who is great. We do drives during the year. We have a lot of partnerships with community organizations and businesses to provide services for our kids, like salons and barbershops that volunteer to do events like $5 for prom. Any monetary support certainly helps.
What else do you want people to know about the foster youth you work with?
They are resilient, first and foremost. They come through these horrible situations and they have to create these defenses, which a lot of times end up hindering them. They move into adulthood and they have to learn that some of those things don’t work in the real world.
And many of them are so incredibly talented and intelligent — they just need someone to reinforce that. “Sure you can do that, you for sure can go to college, you for sure can be an engineer!” To motivate them, to encourage them to move forward and continue to do the good things they are doing — because those things can pay off, they will pay off. We have some truly dynamic personalities — that’s my favorite part of my job. Lot of comedians!
Treehouse and other local nonprofit organizations supporting youth in foster care rely on the generous contributions of the community to make their programs possible. Treehouse is 90% privately funded and relies on the support of more than 7,000 donors every year.