Treehouse Graduation Success

What if every youth in foster care graduated from high school with confidence and skills to implement a self-determined plan for the future?

Photo of Janis Avery
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Kids enter foster care through no fault of their own. They deserve every opportunity—equal opportunity—to achieve their full potential. In 2010, Treehouse learned that graduation rates for foster youth in King County were the worst in the state at 31%. We set an ambitious goal: foster youth will graduate from high school at the same rate as their peers with a plan for the future by 2017. Board Chair Juli Farris challenged us all: “Equity is the only morally and ethically acceptable goal.”

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Washington

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Washington

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Seattle/King County, WA,

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Kids in foster care perform worse than their peers on every academic measure due to trauma, loss, and placement/school changes. Less than half of foster youth graduate high school on time. By age 35, 3% of foster care alumni have completed a 4-year degree. Without an education, 20% will be homeless as adults; 33% will live below the poverty line and they receive cash public assistance at nearly five times the national rate.

The Graduation Success program provides middle and high school students in foster care with education planning, monitoring, coaching, and other supports to succeed in school. The program is built on two evidence-based practices: Check and Connect, an intensive student engagement model, and Person Centered Planning, a transition to adulthood model from special education. Education Specialists coach youth in self-determination, self-advocacy, and problem solving, giving them as much power in their own lives as possible. We support youth in setting and achieving personally meaningful goals. We monitor attendance, behavior and course performance daily and perform individualized, timely interventions to keep youth on track. We build and support a team of adults around each youth, including caregiver, social worker, and school staff. We meet basic material needs (clothes, books, school supplies) through our free store and pay for things that help youth explore their passions and fully engage in their school or community, like extracurricular activities, school events, and items like yearbooks or cap and gown. Finally, we advocate for youth and help remove and resolve education barriers in school enrollment and transitions, special education needs, disciplinary actions, and credit retrieval.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • LGBTQ or non-binary individuals
  • Low-income communities
  • Other

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Education
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

Foster care / child welfare

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Tuesday was a motivated freshman with good grades. She entered foster care in 10th grade, moved between homes, and was failing in school. Her math teacher offered to be her guardian, and with a consistent home and help from her school and Treehouse team, she brought her GPA up to a 3.5 in one semester. In 11th grade, her childhood trauma manifested into crippling self-doubt and anxiety and she did not enroll for senior year. Her Treehouse Education Specialist worked with her to build confidence, set goals, connect with a volunteer tutor, and she got back on track—graduating with a strong GPA and accepted to college! She says her biggest achievement is “Being the first person in my family to graduate from high school.”

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Treehouse serves 700 middle/high school youth in foster care annually. The 2015 graduation rate for Graduation Success youth was 68%, compared to the 43% statewide foster youth graduation rate. More promising, the extended five-year graduation rate for the Class of 2014 was 78%, just one point below their general population peers. Youth we have served the longest are on track to graduate at the highest rate of any of our cohorts at 68%. In one quarter, over 70% of youth in our program made progress toward a personal goal, and nearly 50% of youth advocated for themselves, key indicators that the program model is working. With the mobility of youth in foster care, we expect that the extended graduation rate for the youth we serve will stay steady at about 80%. We plan to expand service to over 2,000 more middle and high school students across Washington State over the next five years.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • over $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Treehouse is approximately 80% privately funded, and successfully raises nearly $6 million in cash and over $1 million in material supports annually. Our work is supported by more than 8,000 individual donors, as well as corporations and organizations. As we expand statewide, we will continue to pursue additional state funding, but we are not counting on it growing significantly.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are promising education support programs for youth in foster care that have been developed and launched in recent years in several other states. What sets the Treehouse model apart is the degree to which it is youth-driven and youth-centered. Our primary relationships and interventions are with the youth, as opposed to the adults around them, and we rely on building their self-determination, self-advocacy and problem-solving skills. We believe that working with adolescent youth directly is critical to the success of the program.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Child welfare systems have 3 priorities: 1) safety; 2) permanency; and a distant 3rd, child well-being. Well-being should be elevated and funded to ensure educational progress while in foster care. Intensive educational interventions will help foster children catch up and mitigate the impacts of missed academic milestones like K-readiness, 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math. Mindfulness training for youth in foster care, educators and other youth professionals could significantly improve mental health and mitigate trauma that impacts kids’ executive function and ability to self-regulate.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Attachments (1)

2014-15 Year End Report Card.pdf

Highlights of all Treehouse programs for 2014-15 school year, along with success stories from our youth.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Alison Grubbs

Hi, Janis! So impressed by and grateful for this project -- it's clear you're doing exceptional work supporting adolescents in foster care and helping them achieve both educational and personal goals. At Ashoka, we've seen an uptick in building integrative teams of adults to support young people; it seems to make all of the difference for kids younger than 12. (I know that you're focused primarily on high school students -- but, for this challenge, your work with younger kids is most relevant.) I love your reflections on mindfulness and the priorities in the welfare system, as well; those are super compelling insights.

As you continue to share your work in this and future settings, I'd love to hear more more precise information about your model. For instance, when and how often do these meetings take place (e.g., in school, after school, weekends)? What's the ratio of adults per student? What kind of training do you provide the adults supporting these foster kids? How are you approaching student leadership? That helps me to understand what's innovative about the project and how you're tackling questions around sustainability and scale. It's clear those foundations are present, but it's always helpful to see them spelled out explicitly! Thanks for sharing, and keep up the amazing work.