Giving Foster Youth a Chance at College

Until she joined the Guardian Scholars program, Bajing, 15, didn't think college was in her future. The 10th grader, who has Photos by Ana Ponzo

Photos by Ana Ponzo

Until she joined the Guardian Scholars program, Bajing, 15, didn’t think college was in her future. The 10th grader, who has grown up in foster care, joins two dozen peers in the First Star Bruin Guardian Academy for an annual summer residency program at University of California, Los Angeles, and in monthly programs throughout the school year.

Growing up in Los Angeles, in a family unsettled by addiction and dysfunction, Justin Turner, 18, was convinced from an early age that college was not for him. “A kid from my background, where I came from, college wasn’t really an option, or even a dream. It was just unreal,” Turner said.

Turner and his brothers entered foster care when he was in eighth grade, precipitating what became the most troubled time of his young life. “I was so lost. There was a lot of anger, a lot of mixed emotions, and school was something that just made it worse — if that was possible,” said Turner.

Nearly one-half of the nation’s 500,000 kids in foster care leave high school without a diploma, and only about 3 percent ever obtain a college degree, according to the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation. Its report, “The Invisible Achievement Gap Report,” shares that overall, foster youth have the lowest educational attainment of any cross-section of the population, including low-income families, Englishlanguage learners and racial minorities (See sidebar).

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University also found that more than half of the achievement gap experienced by lowincome kids, including foster youth, is due to unequal access to summer learning opportunities.

Turner was on track to become another grim foster care statistic when his social worker told him about a special residency program, the First Star Bruin Guardian Scholars Academy, that was about to change his life.

The Academy was created as a partnership between the nonprofit First Star Academies, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, and one of the nation’s top public universities. By the following summer, Turner had joined a cohort of other foster youth heading into high school who first spent three weeks living together in the dormitories of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Developing a college mindset

During that comprehensive summer immersion program, Turner and the other Bruin Guardian Scholars pursued a rigorous schedule of classes. They recovered high school credits for courses they had failed or missed because of home and school changes while in foster care. They worked on boosting their math and English competence in skills-building classes.

But the focus of the summer residency wasn’t entirely academic. “We had to learn life skills to help us through,” said Turner. “We did meditation, learned different ways to take out our frustrations and work through our emotions. Those helped me out the most over the long run, they really did.”

The 30 Guardian Scholars also took enrichment courses, took part in peer and adult mentoring sessions and soaked up the natural camaraderie of being on a college campus together. By the end of that first summer residency, the kids who came from chaotic and often abusive homes had developed what director Josephine Jones, Ed.D., calls “the college-going mindset.”

With the right kinds of advocacy, supports and services, said Jones, a program like the one at UCLA can convince even the most discouraged foster youth that they can thrive in college. But the challenges are immense. “College is often the last thing on their minds, because they are constantly in survival mode, wondering where they will be living next month,” said Jones.

Kevin, one of the Bruin Guardian Scholars, reads information about scholarships at the group's college admissions and financial aid workshop, held in February at Loyola Marymount University.

Kevin, one of the Bruin Guardian Scholars, reads information about scholarships at the group’s college admissions and financial aid workshop, held in February at Loyola Marymount University.

Opening doors

Bajing, 15, said her parents “had issues” while she was growing up. Because they were unstable and had drug problems, Bajing said she has been in foster care “on and off all my life.” A 10th grader from Palmdale, California, she has been living in a more stable situation with the same foster caregiver for the past three years. Until she joined the Guardian Scholars, Bajing didn’t think college was in her future. “Before the program, I just strictly wanted to be a professional dancer,” she said.

The Guardian Scholars opened her eyes to new opportunities. She learned about her education rights and how to advocate for herself. She found out about scholarships, and her horizons began to expand. “I started looking into different majors, and now I want to major in psychology and then a minor in dance,” said Bajing. But her new ambitions don’t end there. “I also want to go to law school,” she said.

Like Turner, Bajing found the bond she developed with other foster youth in the program gave her a sense of identity and confidence. And the staff offered her the security many foster youth grow up yearning for. “They’re there; they’re always there. If you need something, you can rely on them to help you,” said Bajing.

In addition to four years of concentrated summer programming, the Guardian Scholars at UCLA also meet one Saturday per month during the school year. “We continue to work on academic skill building and character development, as well as team building,” said Jones. The Guardian Scholars also benefit from access to a dedicated career counselor and a social welfare intern, as well as coaching about scholarships and college applications.

Turner said help with the complex application process made a huge difference to him once he began dreaming about continuing his education. “The application itself is such a scary thing to do. I was terrified, even though they helped me figure out so much. I could never have done it alone,” he said.

So far Jones’ program at UCLA has sent 27 alumni to college. Due to its staggered enrollment, 30 high school sophomores are currently enrolled, and will be joined this summer by an additional 30 rising ninth graders. The students stay with the program for all four years of high school, at a cost of about $10,000 per student.

And, according to Jones, that’s a small price to pay for the outcomes the Bruin Guardians Academy has achieved: “100 percent of our alumni graduated from high school, and nearly 90 percent are enrolled in some form of higher education,” said Jones. Forty percent of alumni are attending four-year colleges and universities, she said.

UCLA was the first university to host a First Star Academy for foster youth, but before long its success was being matched by a similar program across the country at the University of Rhode Island (URI).

‘They get me here’

“I have a young man — his mother committed suicide and his sister was killed in front of him,” said Merry Caswell, administrative director of the First Star URI Academy in Kingston, Rhode Island. “He’s living in a group home, but he’s getting As and Bs, and I keep telling him he’s got such potential and not to let these tragedies define who he is.”

While a key component of the program is the summer residency at UCLA, Bruin Guardian Scholars meet monthly during the school year. These students enjoyed a break on Loyola's campus during the winter workshop at college admissions.

While a key component of the program is the summer residency at UCLA, Bruin Guardian Scholars meet monthly during the school year. These students enjoyed a break on Loyola’s campus during the winter workshop at college admissions.

The First Star Academy at URI is smaller than at UCLA, but the approach is the same: a wrap-around program of academic and emotional supports revolving around a summer residency program. During that summer immersion, foster youth can recover high school credits, earn college credits, prepare for the SAT and college applications, and explore careers — all while learning life skills and enjoying enrichment courses such as drumming, culinary arts and dance.

“The range of things that kids in families are taught by their parents, we’re teaching them through our program,” said Caswell. During the summer residency, the URI Scholars live together in a fraternity house — girls on the second floor, boys on the first — and according to Caswell, a big part of the program’s success is due to the emotional bonding the kids experience. “They’re all together and they’ve gone through similar situations,” said Caswell. “What they say is: ‘This is a place where people understand me. I don’t feel different. They get me’.”

Emmit, browsing the library at Loyola Marymount University.

Emmit, browsing the library at Loyola Marymount University.

During the program’s second summer, Caswell hired a full-time social worker to conduct private counseling sessions and workshops about stress relief, grief and healthy relationships. Caswell is reminded of one program graduate who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and has been in foster care since she was 4 years old. “She told me how much this program helped her to become more confident and to express her feelings,” said Caswell. The young woman is currently in community college, studying to be a social worker.

The URI program is a partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth & Families and the nonprofit agency Adoption Rhode Island, with contributions from the university and the global philanthropy program at the toy company Hasbro in Providence.

A growing movement

Other First Star Academies have sprung up across the country. The movement began in 2011 with the First Star Academy Program, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C, founded by British and American TV and film producer Peter Samuelson, who wanted to invest in foster youth and remove barriers to their higher education success. Since then, First Star has overseen the creation of foster youth academies at seven universities: UCLA, George Washington University (DC), University of Connecticut, University of Central Florida, University of Rhode Island, Rowan University (New Jersey) and Loyola University (Chicago). (See sidebar.)

The program is growing at a rate of about three new academies per year. “We’re ambitious, but we’re growing at a prudent rate, with a focus on ensuring our sustainability,” said national director Paige Chan.

The program costs for each academy differ, said Chan, because Los Angeles is more expensive than Orlando, Florida. And the funding streams also vary, because each partnership is unique. “We come up with the budget, find out what the university can provide in terms of in-kind contributions, and then we go to the child welfare agency and ask, ‘What can you contribute on this?” said Chan. “Whatever is left is raised philanthropically.”

Some academies are funded entirely between the university and state or local child welfare agencies, said Chan, while at others, First Star has had to raise 50 percent of the budget. “We purposely have not taken federal dollars, because that would require us to do random selection of students,” said Chan. “We put a lot of emphasis on choosing a mix of students that will allow us to form a cohort that turns into a family,” she said.

In choosing applicants, Chan doesn’t focus too much on prior grades, which rarely reflect a foster youth’s true potential because of their frequent home and school changes while in foster care. Instead, said Chan, they look for academic curiosity and personal aspirations. Jones, at UCLA, said she looks for signs that with the right supports, a foster youth has high hopes for breaking out of a cycle of poverty and neglect.

It was that yearning to break from his past that ensured Justin Turner a place at the UCLA First Star Academy. Turner is now a firstyear student at the University of California, Riverside. He hopes to be an educator and says he couldn’t have made the strides he has without the First Star Academy. “It changed my life entirely,” he said. “Nothing I have now would have been possible without it.”

Edwin, at the end of the Guardian Scholars' monthly program in February, where the 10th graders learned about different universities, financial aid and scholarships, and living and working on campus.

Edwin, at the end of the Guardian Scholars’ monthly program in February, where the 10th graders learned about different universities, financial aid and scholarships, and living and working on campus.

The achievement gap for foster youth

It’s been called “the invisible achievement gap,” because teachers and school administrators often are unaware that their lowest attainers and most emotionally troubled students have something in common: They’ve been removed from an unsafe home environment due to abuse or neglect.

San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation sponsored a data analysis from California’s education and child welfare systems in which researchers at WestEd, a nonpartisan nonprofit agency, produced an education snapshot of K-12 students in foster care in California from the 2009- 10 academic year. The report found that foster youth:

Were consistently among the lowestperforming subgroups academically in math and English, testing at “below basic” and “far below basic” proficiency at twice the rate of the statewide population.

Had the highest dropout rates and were among the least likely to graduate from high school. Statewide, the high school graduation rate was 84 percent; for students in foster care it was 58 percent.

Were more likely than the general population to be enrolled in the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Were twice as likely to be designated with a disability, and five times more likely to be classified with an emotional disturbance.

Were much more likely to change schools during the school year. One-third of students in foster care transferred schools at least once; one in 10 foster youth attended three or more schools within the same year.

In response to findings such as these, Paige Chan, national director of the First Star Academies, said, “Our goal has always been to undo the stereotypes that plague foster youth and show that if you give them the right supports, they’ll succeed, especially on a college campus.”

First Star Academies at a glance

For questions or information about starting a First Star Academy, contact Paige Chan, national director,, 310-882-5810 or 213-761-5499.

University of California, Los Angeles: The Bruin Guardian Scholars Academy at UCLA (BGSA) served as the pilot for the First Star Academy model. It launched in 2011 as a partnership between First Star, UCLA and the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services. BGSA is located in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of foster youth in the country with more than 22,000 foster youth. These youth experience some of the highest rates of home and school instability in the country, which prevents a majority from graduating high school. Contact Josephine Jones at

The University of Rhode Island: The University of Rhode Island Academy is a partnership between the university, the Rhode Island Department of Children Youth and Families and Adoption Rhode Island, and is implemented by the support of Hasbro, Inc. and Identity Theft 911. Contact Merry Caswell,

The University of Connecticut: Established in 2013, the UConn Academy is a partnership between the university and the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. During the Summer Academies, youth earn up to three college credits, take English and math remedial courses, and participate in SAT prep courses. During the school year, Academy staff monitor the youths’ academic progress and provide enrichment seminars. Contact Susana Ulloa at or David Mrotek at david.

George Washington University: The First Star Greater Washington Academy (FSGWA) serves high school foster youth from Fairfax County, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. The youth spend each summer living at the Mount Vernon campus of George Washington University. During the Summer Academies and school year, participants receive individualized assessment and instruction from certified teachers in core reading and math skills. Contact Brian Ritchey at

Loyola University: The First Star Loyola Academy is a partnership between First Star and the Summer Enrichment at Loyola (SEaL) program. The Academy provides up to 32 Chicagoarea foster youth with intensive four-week residential summer programming and year-round support and guidance for all four years of high school. The First Star SEaL Scholars participate in the SEaL program’s academic and college prep programming, and receive additional foster youth-specific training and support throughout high school. Contact Bridget Wesley at bwesley@luc. edu

Rowan University: The Rowan Academy is implemented by the South Jersey First Star Collaborative, which is funded by the Pascale Sykes Foundation and serves foster youth from Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem counties in New Jersey. The Collaborative is a partnership between First Star, Rowan University and CASA ( The Rutgers School of Law- Camden provides education case management and advocacy to ensure all participants remain on track for high school graduation and admissions to higher education. Contact Wally Kappelar at

University of Central Florida: UCF is the most recent university to join the First Star family, having opened its Academy in July 2015. It is unique in having been established wholly through the leadership of the local child welfare agency, Community-Based Care of Central Florida. Its first cohort includes 25 foster youth. Contact Kristie Homer at

Two new First Star Academies are also in the works for summer 2016: Academies at City University of New York-Staten Island and Rutgers University-Newark.


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