The floors are freshly polished, classroom doors opened and schedules printed. The beginning of each school year brings promises of what lies ahead. For many high school students this means moving onto college after graduation.
For the nation’s foster youth, however, going away to college remains a distant hope. Nationally, less than ten percent of foster youth enter higher education, of whom only three percent go on to earn a college degree.
First Star, a foster youth college-prep program tailored to improve educational outcomes and ensure college attainment, aims to change that statistic one student at a time. Positive results from the program’s existing academies are generating high hopes for the program’s future.
Since 2011, First Star has pioneered college-prep programs at universities across the U.S. to support foster youth by providing academic support, life skills and advocacy training and community connections, all with the end goal of entering college.
First Star is “the only college prep program in the country, that I know of, that is specifically for foster youth. It’s like Upward Bound for foster youth,” said Paige Chan, national director of First Star Academies.
At each university’s First Star Academy, participants spend four to six weeks living on campus throughout the summer, and return to campus monthly throughout the year. The program offers the refuge and resources of an established university campus, a stability that many foster youth often live without.
The idea behind First Star was sparked when Dr. Kathleen Reardon at the University of Southern California thought, “let’s put these children somewhere incredibly helpful for once, and work on life-skills and education while housed in an encouraging community on the campus of a great four-year university. “
First Star strikes a balance between helping kids gain academic skills and building their self-esteem. “The whole system is designed to crush the kids. It’s not a very conducive environment for them to say ‘oh, I think I’ll go to university.’ We’re trying to use the environment of a university to show that that they too can do it,” said Peter Samuelson, First Star’s president and co-founder.
To date First Star has had two cohorts complete the entire four-year program, and the exit statistics are astounding. The average high school graduation rate for foster youth is 45 percent, but 100 percent of First Star’s seniors graduated high school. Ninety-two percent of First Star students went on to attend college, including 46 percent to four-year universities.
“No one has a foster youth college prep program as holistic and meaningful as First Star,” Chan said.
First Star launched in 2011 and currently operates at the following universities: CUNY Staten Island, The George Washington University, Loyola University Chicago, Rowan University, UCLA, University of Central Florida, University of Connecticut and University of Rhode Island.
Each academy has the freedom to implement various initiatives into their programming. “We believe in innovation at the grassroots level. We don’t force a model on every academy. There are the basic fundamentals – its purpose is to get them into college – beyond that there are all sorts of experiments that have been done at academies,” Samuelson said.
Each program cohort covers an age group and academic grade. There is a maximum cohort of 30 students, and a 120-student maximum for each campus. There are at most three cohorts on a campus at once.
“First Star does not run these academies. It’s the nonprofit version of McDonalds. We’ve got all the designs, but each academy is run by its respective university,” Samuelson said.
Academies are typically run out of law schools, social work schools or academic affairs offices, and local organizations often provide community supports.
“First Star is in one corner, the university in a second corner, child protective services in a third corner and local practitioners in a supportive community in the fourth corner,” Samuelson said.
Every new academy is a new university initiative, and the key to academy success is creating multi-way partnerships. “It’s a collaborative effort as opposed to working in silos,” Chan said.
Beyond a program director and assistant director for each academy, First Star and its partnering universities hire youth mentors, graduate and undergraduate university students, who serve as role models for the foster youth students. “Who they really want to emulate is someone who is 21, 22, 25, and they very rapidly they form themselves in a vibrant family, and it’s very real and meaningful and very emotionally felt by them,” Samuelson said.
First Star aims to leverage partnerships that can engage entire universities around supporting foster youth. “Universities are an untapped resource, as are their faculty and staff,” Chan said. “We want our students to be surrounded by people they are inspired by.”
Looking forward, First Star hopes to expand to thirteen or fourteen academies by summer 2017.
“We want to be proactive rather than reactive. We’re passionate about fixing a system that people think is not broken,” Chan said.