CHENEY, Wash. - Walking across the stage to receive his diploma will have extra significance for a Cheney High School student this spring.
Alexander Gerkensmuyer has learned so many lessons in the classroom. He already has a few ideas about what he wants to dedicate his career to.
"I'm deciding whether I want to have a degree in nursing or forensic biologist," Gerkensmuyer said.
That's really impressive coming from a high school student. The Cheney High School senior is finishing up his final month of class and taking college classes at Eastern Washington University.
He earned a spot in the Running Start Program when he was a junior. It's enabled him to meet new people and earn college credits. By the time he graduates high school, he'll have most of his general requirements done with.
"I like the Running Start because I have a lot of college friends, as well as high school friends, and I get college credit," Gerkensmuyer said.
His life hasn't always been so planned out and simple.
Gerkensmuyer entered the foster care system when he was about 14. He spent the next four years bouncing between homes until he turned 18.
One recent constant has been Malik Roberson.
"He's there, always, and even if we don't meet, he calls or texts me just to make sure I'm doing good or not," Gerkensmuyer said.
Roberson works for a Seattle-based nonprofit called Treehouse. He meets with the teen weekly and discusses goals, successes, and any other issues Gerkensmuyer wants to talk about.
"I've been blessed to be part of assisting him and helping him and watching him grow and transition into adulthood," Roberson said.
It's an important job, especially considering that an estimated 43 percent of kids in foster care in Washington will graduate by 18, according to Treehouse. That's well below rates of their peers.
Treehouse has worked hard for years to change that and have gained ground recently.
The nonprofit saw its highest on-time graduation rate last year at 69 percent.
"What we're doing has proven to be pretty effective," Roberson said.
Cheney School District Superintendent Robert Roettger has taken notice of the program. He said he's excited to learn it's part of a growing support group available for students in Cheney.
"What Alex's story shows is that it takes many different avenues to help kids get to the finish line," Roettger said. "The academic side is important, but how do we support students with those positive relationships while they're in school so that they can flourish?"
Roberson said that Treehouse is so successful because of the important community partnerships across the state. The group is able to serve more than 7,000 youth across Washington through all its programs. Some are paid for entirely by donations.
Learn more about getting involved with Treehouse here.
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