Ernest Henderson Jr. – Regional Manager for Treehouse

Can you tell us about your history and experience working with students who are in foster care and at Treehouse?

I have been the Eastern Washington Regional Manager for Treehouse’s Education Services for the past two years. My responsibilities include managing the region’s Graduation Success and Educational Advocacy programs while supporting our efforts to expand statewide by 2022. I’ve worked in nonprofits for more than 10 years and education for over 20 years. I have been an athletic coach for several sports and have run several different afterschool programs. I’ve worked for organizations like Gear Up, Upward Bound and Twenty First Century. Over the course of my career, I’ve encountered several youth who were in foster care in my programs. As an alumni of foster care and having been a foster parent for about 15 years, I have a deep personal connection to Treehouse’s mission.

How can being a youth in foster care affect a student during high school and leading up to applying to college?

Youth in foster care experience high levels of abuse and chaos compared to their peers. All of this leads to significant behavior issues. Mental health concerns and special needs are more likely to be an issue for our youth, and the frequent transition they experience from school to school and home to home probably has the most significant impact. Most of our youth will experience several transitions during their childhood and adolescence, and many times they will experience multiple transitions within the span of a single school year. Many of them even move back and forth from their birth home to foster care several times. This creates a lot of insecurity and a lack of structure in their lives. With each transition, they can lose as much as six months of academic progress.

Is the process for applying for financial aid and FAFSA different for individuals in foster care?

It’s absolutely different, and in some ways simpler for youth in foster care. When they fill out the FAFSA, they don’t have to fill out parent information, income information, or tax information. Instead, they qualify as independent. This turns a process that takes a couple of hours for most people into a 10-minute process. They also qualify for more resources. For example, Washington state offers the Governor’s Grant and Passport to College, both of which are open to nearly all youths in foster case.

Are there resources for foster care students that can assist with the cost of required tests like the SAT and ACT?

Most of those tests have an income-based waiver in one form or another. These are usually handled at the school level, and every school seems to work with that differently. Many times we can just get them an outright waiver so the youth doesn’t have to pay for the test at all. Sometimes they won’t even approach them with a fee if they’re on free and reduced lunch, which all of our kids qualify for. If there isn’t a waiver, Treehouse or another organization will usually pay for it. Even social workers have funds that can help cover the costs. As long as the needs of our youth are visible, we can get these tests paid for.

What are the academic challenges students in foster care specifically face on their path to college that other students may not face?

Having an unstable living environment is by far the most difficult challenge to overcome. Most youth in foster care don’t know where they’re going to be living semester to semester. That causes a lot of anxiety, and it makes it difficult to focus on academic achievement. These transitions can also lead to a lack of a solid academic base.

Say a youth had to move a couple times the year before when they were taking algebra one but somehow managed to pass. When they move on to the next math class in the series, they often don’t have the knowledge base needed to succeed like they would have if they had been able to take the class in one setting.

What challenges do they face during college?

Our youth face all the things they faced in high school with the added struggle of navigating life without the supports they had before. Often times, youth in foster care will latch onto their most supportive teachers, coaches or other staff. Students usually don’t keep these supports once they get to college, leaving them without a fixed adult figure in their life in any way. There is really no safety net. They experience a flood of freedom that they are often unprepared for, which really impacts their ability to move forward successfully.

What don’t people understand about foster care and specifically students who are or have been in foster care?

Most people have a difficult time understanding how the chaos and transition that’s going on in these young lives can influence their behavior and school performance. There seems to be a mindset that youth in foster care aren’t capable of performing on par with their peers or of finding long-term success. I think Treehouse has really shown that, with the proper supports in place, this simply isn’t true. Regardless, we still see many teachers, parents, and educators come to this conclusion. Our youth often have significant behavior issues because of the trauma and transition they’ve experienced. At first glance, they can appear to be poor students, but really what they need is more support and more structure.

What advice would you give to students who are in foster care and do not believe it is possible for them to attend college?

Stop looking at education as a set of hurdles you need to jump over. Rather, think of it as building a ladder that will allow you to climb high. I want to show them that they have peers who have made it through the process and encourage them to focus on their talents and passions. This allows them to understand what they’re pursuing.

For me, I struggled academically in high school. There was just no foundation. I attended 17 different schools by the time I graduated high school. I did not have strong study skills, experienced intermittent homelessness, and I had to work full-time while being an athlete. This is pretty common for kids that are in foster care. I got through by the skin of my teeth and immediately moved on to a university.

After graduation, the supports I had built around me in high school were completely gone. I struggled getting out of bed. I struggled getting to class on time. I struggled scheduling my day to focus on studying. As a result, I ended up flunking out three times before the age of 20. So I took some time off, worked as a truck driver, met my wife, and got married. Once I was older and a little more mature, I decided to give it another try. It took some real hard work after high school to get to where I had enough of a base to go back to college and succeed.

Do you believe, if at all, students should address the subject of being in foster care with universities on their college application? Their college essay?

That has to be a situation-by-situation decision. I think some youth, especially a talented writer, can incorporate their story into an essay that would really show how driven they are to succeed and display some of the things they’ve had to overcome. By no means do youth have to feel obligated to share this with the world. There is a lot of trauma that comes with their experiences, often times talking about it doesn’t benefit them and can cause them to regress into old behaviors. If they’re not comfortable doing it, then they should focus on other successes they’ve had in life.

What are some strategies students can use to address being in or having been in foster care with universities, professors, and their peers?

This should be a case-by-case issue because of privacy. I don’t know that all the professors or peers need to know about it. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it makes it worse because of the stigma associated with being in foster care. What a youth needs to do is ensure they utilize the services available for them. They should definitely engage in mentoring programs and financial aid programs like the Governor’s scholarship. When it comes to their professors and peers, they need to be confident in the rapport they have with those individuals, and they need to move forward based on that level of comfort and trust.

Are there other organizations like yours or resources students in foster care can connect with while starting the process of applying to college?

Although no organization offers the same in-depth support that Treehouse does, there are other organizations doing an excellent job at serving our youth during the college transition. College Success Foundation is one that we collaborate with quite a bit and they’re amazing. Set Up is another great organization that helps with this transition work. Independent Living supports our youth with housing and homeless issues that they may face after high school.

Some of the most valuable resources are the mentoring programs offered at universities like the Achievers program and Fostering Washington. These are designed to give our kids structured experiences so they can engage in student life, learn to use campus supports, and develop peer supports for their own community and personal growth.

What are ways high schools can support students who are in or have previously been in foster care when they are applying to college? When they are attending college?

Any counselor that works with our youth needs to be very aware of their transcripts. They should really analyze them in a way to help the student understand what they’ll need to do to graduate on time, what they need to make up, and what they need to do to go to the universities or programs they want to attend.

Our youth may have enough of the credits to graduate from high school, but that doesn’t mean they have the prerequisites to go to the universities or programs they want to attend. The responsibility falls on these counselors to do a really good job in keeping track of what our students have done and what deficits they need to address as early as possible.

What are ways universities can support students who have been in foster care while they are in college?

On the university side, a lot of what they’re doing is offering mentoring programs like the Passport Navigator program. Just about every public university in the state has some sort of support staff that work directly with youth in foster care. The funding and support behind those programs are absolutely vital for our youth to succeed.

The lack of an adult, authority figure, or mentor often leads to failure at the post-secondary level. We need universities to engage these youth as soon as they step on campus, helping them get a schedule set in place and a plan of action for their studies. These are some of the best ways that universities can support youth in foster care.

Any final thoughts for us?

Most people assume that to influence the foster system in a positive way, they have to become a foster parent, which is a very difficult thing and not for everyone. There are a number of ways you can get involved that don’t require you to be a parent. I would encourage you to visit treehouseforkids.org to learn about ways to support those efforts. Action is always better than assuming you can’t help.