First Star Academy at UM supports foster care youth

First Star Academy at UM supports foster care youth
First Star Academy at UM supports foster care youth
UM School of Law professor Kele Stewart (right) discusses strategy and ideas with members of the First Star Academy team (pictured l-r) counselors Stephan Ambrose, Alkean Smith and Deborah Perez, and program director Maria Pia De Castro.

Trust comes painstakingly slow for many foster care youth. Those who spend their childhoods tossed from family to family as they tumble through “the system,” often are left wondering where “home” will be tomorrow.

Yet for the 20 rising ninth-graders in foster care that comprise the first cohort of the First Star Academy of the University of Miami, “home” was the University’s Coral Gables campus for five weeks this summer. And trust — together with math, language arts, science and life skills — was the focus of their learning as part of this national model that provides a pathway to college for foster care youth.

Bringing such an ambitious program that works with at-risk youth to a college campus requires both visionary leadership and committed partners. The effort has been fueled by the passion of UM School of Law professor Kele Stewart and the planning team of Laura Kohn-Wood, professor, and Wendy Morrison-Cavendish, associate professor, both in the School of Education and Human Development.

“Everyone in our program has a trauma history,” Stewart said. “We talked with case managers to determine who would be a good fit. As long as the student fit the criteria and wanted to be here, we were determined to give everyone an opportunity.”

The teens spent their mornings strengthening academics; afternoons focused on life skills, with weekly field trips to see the murals in Wynwood, the Frost Science Museum, a dance performance, and doing a beach cleanup. They ate in the Hecht Dining Hall and slept in the residential colleges.

The same group — with the potential to add 10 more students — returns for the next three summers. During the school year, UM staff from the School of Education and the School of Law coordinate monthly Saturday meetings with the adolescents and their parents or caregivers also while providing educational advocacy support. The program is funded in this first phase by The Children’s Trust and by Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe.

The dramatic change of scenery, and the commitment and support of the UM team yielded fast progress for many of the participants.

“You really see the wheels turning,” Stewart said.

“They’re being exposed to a lot of different things, and the youth are very engaged, asking a lot of questions. It’s nice to see how they’re responding,” she added.

“Getting to know the students — their faces and their stories — was huge. And letting them know that we’re committing to them —that’s something they generally don’t hear,” Morrison-Cavendish said.

Kohn-Wood and Morrison-Cavendish have been instrumental in developing the design and research protocol for the program. The program promotes positive behaviors that will enable the teens to graduate high school, and enter and succeed in college.

“We use our practice and research to apply to a community in need,” Kohn-Wood said. “Foster kids are one of the most vulnerable groups.

It’s heartbreaking that there are federal dollars available to go to many youth, but they’re not able to take advantage of it.”

Federal and some state dollars are available for foster youth to attend college, but lacking the skills, the study habits, the support, they inevitably drop out. First Star seeks to lay a foundation for success.

The First Star Academy is composed of a cadre of UM alumni and students who serve as teachers, advisors and support staff.

“The kids see the unity and cohesiveness of our team — and it’s really good for them to see. It’s been a very positive experience,” said Maria Pia De Castro, a UM alum and adjunct and former public school teacher, who is the only full-time staff.

The summer residential program ended in early August. A first family session is scheduled for early September to reconvene with the students after they’ve started their high school classes, and to meet with foster parents and caretakers to continue to build family bonds.

“We’re doing First Star for a reason. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to work on a project with people who are really committed to these students for the right reasons,” Morrison-Cavendish said.

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