Foster Youth First Star Academy in Action: Rowan University

Saturday mornings on college campuses are typically quiet, but as I walk into Science Hall at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., I am bombarded with shouting and commotion.

The controlled chaos throughout the room is a product of the First Star Rowan Academy, a college-prep program for foster youth, designed to help students reach academic and personal success.

Ping-pong balls fly as students attempt to knock over a rival group’s tower of red cups. Four separate groups work quickly as cups topple over and are re-stacked. Shrieks erupt as program director Wally Kappeler yells, “Stop! Let’s see if anyone’s tower is still standing …”

“It may not look like it, but this activity’s all about team building and communication,” Jesse Beitler, assistant program director of the First Star Rowan Academy, tells me.

First Star is a four-year rigorous college-prep program for foster youth designed to improve educational outcomes and ensure college attainment. Universities across the U.S. have their own First Star academies, implementing various models and initiatives to suite their students’ specific needs. The Rowan Academy launched 2014, and is currently entering its third year as a 30-student cohort.

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Students at Rowan University’s First Star Academy listen to program director Wally Kappelar after a team building activity. Photo: Devon Ziminski

The academy meets for four to six weeks each summer at Rowan University, then meets at least monthly on Saturdays throughout the year. “When we have the kids over the summer, they’re remarkable. You see energy and excitement. It seems to fizzle when you get into the mundane pattern of school, so we meet with them at least once a month on Saturdays doing different activities. We’re constantly in their lives,” Kappeler said.

I’ve joined the first re-union since the summer session, and plans flutter for the new school year.

“We’re going into our third school year together and we want to increase their leadership potential, and develop a speaker series,” Kappeler said.

These leadership activities involve speaking at a state board of education meeting, teaching the youth to work in committees and developing a service project in Orlando next summer.

The Rowan Academy’s aim is to generate academic success, teach life-skills, promote stability and foster community supports in the lives of the youngsters, with the ultimate goal of college attainment.

Each month the program’s meeting has a specific focus, such as test-taking skills or socio-emotional developments related to coping mechanisms or de-escalation strategies. The Academy also conducts case management meetings with Rutgers University Law School interns.

“Then we get back to the fun. We end with a team activity, and they seem to really love that … they’re a tight-knit family now because we’ve had the cohort for so long,” Kappeler said.

Other recent and upcoming events throughout the school year include a Phillies baseball game, camping trips and support of a local 5K run.

Beyond the developmental components of the First Star model, the Rowan Academy focuses on creating lifetime networks of support for the participating youth and their families, both natural and foster. The Academy has partnered with the Family Strengthening Network to identify adults in the youth’s lives and create “Family Action Plans” to provide youth with long-term support.

“We help families to self-identify goals that will help them advance. Give them support to help raise children, get insurance or find transportation to work. Whatever they need … we’re in the home trying to support the entire family,” Kappeler said.

Typically, the First Star program model starts with children in the same grade, and follows them through the program from the beginning of ninth grade through the summer after their senior year of high school. The Rowan Academy students range from seventh grade to high school seniors, raising some additional challenges, particularly with academic supports, but also provides a rich environment to develop sibling-like supports.

“It’s been great to have that mixed cohort. I see so many benefits to it,” Kappeler said.

As my day with the Rowan Academy continues, the students and program staff shift to focus on action plans: short- and long-term goals for the upcoming school year.

“We want to be proactive to everything. We’re connecting the dots to every person in your life,” Beitler told the group. “We have a team of people in our office that are willing, able and ready to help.”

“These people invest in you because you are worth it, more than worth it,” said Melissa Helmbrecht, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties in New Jersey.

As the students work quietly to complete their action plans and program staff roam the classroom to help, I learn something incredible. Each student was recently granted a full college scholarship to attend a New Jersey institution of higher education, courtesy of the Give Something Back Foundation. The Give Something Back Foundation provides mentoring and college scholarships for students who qualify for Pell Grants.

“The day the kids got the scholarships, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They had a chance to say what it meant to them. It’s an opportunity for them, the fog has risen and an incredible path now lies ahead,” Beitler said.

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, Court Appointed Special Advocates, United Advocacy Group, Community Treatment Solutions and Rutgers University Child and Family Law Clinic.

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Devon Ziminski
About Devon Ziminski 23 Articles
Devon is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow. She writes about gun violence, mental health, adoption policy and practice, and education.