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Ellen Sloan Headshot

Smashing Through the Glass Ceilings of Foster Care

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Paul and Jared race down the hallway of the dorms at UCLA looking for their rooms. They are among the 30 returning tenth-grade high school students of the Bruin Guardian Summer Academy. Although these teens are 15 and 16 years old they are so excited they could be mistaken for young kids going to Disneyland for the first time. Over the course of five weeks this summer these 30 kids will again inhabit an alternate reality, far away from the history of abuse and neglect that placed them in foster care in the first place.

Like all foster kids Paul and Jared are in the foster system through no fault of their own. The adults in their lives have failed them. Their government has failed them. Their community has failed them.

But we as a society cannot continue to fail these kids; they are legally our responsibility. The statistics are alarming and the cost in terms of human potential and a lifetime waste of dollars is staggering. According to National Foster Care Youth Statistics, Fifty percent of foster youth become homeless within the first 18 months of emancipation. Less than half of former foster youth are employed four years after leaving foster care. Girls who have been in the foster system are six times more likely to give birth before the age of 21 than the general population. Our society spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually picking up the pieces.

One way in which to change the trajectory of these kids' lives is to transform their vision of what is possible and to break the tyranny of low expectations placed on them by adults, the government, and society that shackles their potential. First Star, a leading national organization dedicated to improving the lives of foster children, is doing just that with the Bruin Guardian Summer Academy and its sister Academies across the country. The Bruin Academy gives these teens each summer between their high school years, the first hand experience of college life, a view into their optimum alternate reality. Tragically, less than 3 percent of foster youth graduate from college. That means we are consigning 97 of every 100 of these half a million foster kids to a lifetime of earning 75 percent less than a college graduate. Even if they get an associate's degree they would still earn 33% more than someone with only a high school diploma.

Last summer, First Star's class of rising 9th grade foster teens spent five weeks living in a UCLA sorority house taken over for the purpose. The teens trekked up, down, and all around the 419-acre campus while participating in daylong programs and activities (including videography, cooking, financial literacy, meditation and tai chi) that provided four undergraduate academic credits, the social and emotional preparation necessary to flourish in college, and the skills necessary to get into college and successfully transition into young adulthood.

During the school year the teens returned monthly to the UCLA campus for refresher courses and enrichment opportunities such as PSAT/SAT workshops, Homework Strategies, and Coping with Stress. The Bruin Academy Director met with all of the students' high school teachers and social workers, and kept in touch with them throughout the school year. For many of these teens it was the first time any grownup had met with their teachers to discuss their future and to chart a different path -- the path that leads to college.

First Star created a robust online network for the teens to share with one another and with their peer counselors (themselves ex-foster youth, now undergraduates at UCLA) and to maintain the ties they had forged over the summer. This network enabled the teens to don their "Bruin avatar" even while they were back in their former physical world. Many of the teens felt comfortable sharing their new vision and the higher expectations they had for themselves. For instance, in late October a student from the Academy posted her report card grades on the private social network. She demonstrated a substantial commitment to achievement and accountability to herself, not to mention pride in her newly elevated grades. Her current high school G.P.A. is 3.92 with zero absences. She was previously a B student. See the video made by the students here.

As the second summer at UCLA starts for these teens, First Star's goal is to add more color and texture to the alternate reality, making it even more real and tangible... so the students can see it, feel it, and know it is within their reach. College is not always the best option for every child, but each should be given the opportunity to consider going to college as part of their reality and not have the path automatically closed off to them, just because they are part of the foster system. The Bell Curve of IQ is no different here than among any other 500,000 young Americans. It is the grown-ups who are failing the children. We can do much better. We just have to want it, like 30 kids right now who know they are Bruins.