A small windowless office in a high school can be where dreams go to die.
But Skylar Cole’s windowless office in Tacoma’s Lincoln High School is where she helps foster kids graduate, get to college, land a job or even just sign up for driver’s ed.
“The bulk of my day is spent hanging out with teenagers,” said 29-year-old Cole, who this year is helping 12 students. “It’s pretty great.”
Cole is an education specialist with Treehouse, a Washington state nonprofit that helps about 7,000 foster kids a year in public schools.
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She and her colleagues help foster youth graduate as a part of the Treehouse Graduation Success Program. They help with some expenses and advocate on behalf of students to administrators, social workers and caregivers.
They are the coach in the corner for foster kids.
This is the first year that Treehouse has partnered with Tacoma Public Schools. Unlike some other foster care services, the nonprofit emphasizes mentorships that revolve around students’ goals.
“Foster care is pretty adult-directed,” Cole said. “This program is set up specifically to be more youth-directed around what it is that they want.
“We build relationships with students and help them identify what their goals are for themselves academically and personally, and figuring out the steps to achieve them.”
Cole’s office bustles with near daily check-ins from her dozen students, who range from freshmen to seniors.
One of them is Antonio, a 17-year-old senior living in a foster home. (Because Antonio is a minor in foster care the school district withheld his last name.). Throughout high school Antonio has been in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and is involved with student government.
But photography is his passion.
“I’m involved with photography which is the thing that I love the most,” Antonio said.
Right now, his dream job would be working as a photojournalist and helping highlight the lives of minority and lower-income people in America.
Antonio has been working with Cole since February, and credits her with helping him graduate.
“Without Skylar’s keen eye, I wouldn’t be graduating,” he said.
Because foster kids frequently change schools, they can miss important classes and state tests required to graduate. Antonio thought he’d done everything he needed to finish school but in February realized he didn’t.
That’s where Cole comes in.
In addition to talking with Antonio about college applications or graduation, she helped set up a time for him to take the SAT as a substitute for the state tests he missed. She then coordinated with administrators to get Antonio the all clear.
“We just found out he can officially graduate,” she said.
According Tacoma Public Schools, 68 percent of the foster youths Treehouse works with graduate from high school in four years, compared to 43 percent of all foster youth.
Treehouse, which started in King County, receives 85 percent of its funding from donations and 15 percent from the state. It expanded last year into Tacoma and Spokane. The change has given Cole more time to work with students one-on-one.
“In the Tacoma program, we have really low caseloads and we are housed in school buildings themselves,” Cole said. “The amount of advocacy and support I can provide is really different than in the past.”
Cole and Antonio meet about once a day in Cole’s windowless office. They chat about life and Antonio’s plans for after he graduates. College and military service are options for now, he’s looking to take a “brain break,” as Cole puts it.
Education specialists normally stay in touch with their students for six months after they graduate. Cole expects to work with Antonio a little longer, especially if he chooses to go to college next year.
“We’ll stick with kids for the first quarter of whatever post-high school plans they worked with us on — whether that’s straight into the military or work or whatever,” Cole said. “So we’ll see how that goes for about six months and we troubleshoot how the plan is going.”
For now, Antonio will graduate with his class June 9 and then plans to travel.
“Everywhere, anywhere I can get to,” he said “I want to go Mexico, back to Colorado. I just want to go see the sights where I have family that I haven’t seen in awhile.”