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This group of youths almost never go to college, but Utah has a plan to change that

SALT LAKE CITY — States remove abused and neglected children from dangerous or troubling situations every day and place them in foster care, promising to keep them safe. That doesn’t mean the children are promised an especially bright future.

Statistics are disheartening, despite the good intentions and best efforts of policymakers, caseworkers and others. Foster kids move from home to home and change schools on average six times while in care, so most are perpetually behind in school by at least one grade level. They are more likely to drop out or be expelled than students in general.

National data show fewer than half of foster youths even graduate from high school, compared to 82 percent of students overall. While slightly more than half of high school students nationally go to college and 30 percent earn a degree, fewer than 3 percent of foster youths ever enroll in higher education and an abysmal one-third of 1 percent — 0.03 percent — graduate. Utah does a little better than average with high school graduation rates, but mirrors national college statistics, said Crystal Vail, Youth Services Program administrator for the state.

Those numbers could soon change. Utah is joining several states that partner with a local university — in this case, the University of Utah — to get older foster kids ready for college and their futures. In late April, Utah foster kids who have just completed eighth and ninth grade and who live within 40 miles of the U. will be invited to learn about and apply for a spot in the First Star Academy, a program that's turning college attendance and graduation numbers upside down across the country for foster youths who take part. Participants can choose where to get their college education when the time comes; the point is to get them to picture themselves at a university and know they belong there.

“Education is huge,” said Vail. “If someone is not getting a quality education, not graduating at grade level, then that impacts the ability to find good employment. And you learn a lot of social skills in high school. But a lot of our kids move, they change high schools, they fall behind sometimes when they come into care. So they’re not only academically behind, but they’re socially behind. Both those impact their ability to be successful after foster care.”

The program combines life lessons, social skills, intensive academic mentoring and more, delivered in daylong classes one Saturday a month until the students graduate high school, with an annual four-week summer program where the foster youths live on campus.

"We want the students to have as many examples and role models and support systems around them as we can possibly build — to get to know that people are rooting for them, and the more the better," said Sandi Pershing, assistant vice president for engagement at the U., who is coordinating the upcoming academy. "We're not looking for the highest performing kids or the lowest performing, either. We are looking for kids for whom this program will make a difference and push them into higher education."

New beginning

Since the first academy at the University of California Los Angeles in 2011, First Star has spread to 14 universities nationally. It grew out of a policy-focused organization called First Star co-founded by Peter Samuelson, an actor (he was the “clothing thief” in Return of the Pink Panther), movie producer and entrepreneur who focuses on social issues, including youths at risk. Its programs focus on children who have been abused and neglected.

The fact that so few foster youths make it to college or even out of high school intact was troubling to those involved with First Star. The UCLA academy was an attempt to change the trajectory.

The results have been stunning: So far, 100 percent of the foster youths in the program at various First Star academies have completed high school and more than 90 percent have completed college or stayed enrolled. They say "stayed enrolled" because the program in some areas is too new to have given youths time to graduate.

The Utah First Star Academy is a pilot; planners have enough funding in hand to take just one "class" of foster youths all the way through high school graduation and into the college application process, said Pershing. They hope to secure more for future classes.

The U. will select 30 kids now in foster care — 15 each from eighth and ninth grades. The kids must be in foster care to be selected, although once they're in, they can stay in even if their status changes, which is quite common. The youths must apply, write an essay and have an interview. Those selected will live in the new Lassonde Studios for four weeks each summer.

One Saturday a month and during the immersive summer sessions until they graduate from high school, the foster youths will be in classes designed to help them not only stay on grade level and move toward higher education, but also prepare for a robust life, with the skills it takes to be a successful adult, from managing money to etiquette, healthy living, nutrition and more, says Pershing. They’ll also learn life skills, college preparatory decision-making, and caregiver and youth advocacy, among other things.

"We want them to learn when and how to use their voices," said Pershing. "What are the policies that impact them and how can they help people understand what it's like to live as a foster youth?"

She said the Utah academy is seeking grants to fund the program, which has a partnership with the state's Child and Family Services and the Department of Education. The university is donating housing costs and a large share of the salaries for the academic portion, much of it taught by local high school teachers. Best Buy is providing a significant discount so youths can have their own computers. But organizers need the community to donate money to cover food, and their time and talents to teach special skills and help things run smoothly.

"If someone has a great financial management curriculum — this is just one example — and wants to offer it to the academy at no charge, we need that," she said. "We need people to say, 'I can do that. I can teach a basketball workshop' or something else."

Foster youths

Some people assume kids enter foster care because they've done something wrong. In reality, kids enter foster care because adults failed them — most are abused or neglected, said Vail.

"The No. 1 challenge is how do you get people to understand that these kids were the victim of someone," said Paige Chan, First Star national director. She said even teachers may not understand why kids are in foster care or why they may have behavioral and other issues that run a gamut, depending on the details of their lives.

First Star Academy is significantly different from the series of classes traditionally offered to foster youths who "age out" of foster care — that could be 18 to 21 years old depending on which state they live in — instead of reuniting with their birth family or being adopted. Most kids who age out attend a fairly abbreviated series of classes to learn skills for independence.

Ricky Ballesteros, now 26, recalls classes he took when he was preparing to leave foster care, where he’d been placed at age 16 because his parents were sent to prison on drug charges. He said he'd missed so much school taking care of his younger siblings that he wasn't sure he could catch up and graduate from high school. He was angry and rebellious and it wasn't like he had big future plans, he said. His parents had dropped out of school young to work. He had few role models.

Ricky Ballesteros poses for a group photo with the Chill Foundation before snowboarding at Brighton on Monday, March 20, 2017. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The state had him attend roughly seven weeks of classes, each about three hours long, where they talked finances and how to rent an apartment and other practical details of adult life. Learning to be independent is a lot to cram into so few hours, and they don’t talk much about the next stage until kids are around 16.

Vail said the First Star Academy is more intensive and thorough — and has social workers and educators in Utah excited about the potential to change the future for those who enroll at a younger age, which will give them time to absorb the robust offering of lessons and change their outlook on the future. Plus, it starts working with younger kids, which means more time to give them robust offerings.

More to do

Kids in foster care have many needs, not solely education challenges. Many foster youths have unaddressed mental health issues from trauma, said Chan. They have trust issues and behavioral ones, too.

Those who age out of the system without successfully addressing those issues are more likely to go to jail, be homeless and become pregnant young compared to a general population of their peers. They struggle to find jobs and get almost no work experience while in foster care because so many other things are going on in their lives. Amid all that, it’s no wonder few see themselves in college.

That was true for Andrea Gamboa, 19, a former foster kid who is now in her second year at San Francisco State studying biochemistry and doing well. She went through the First Star Academy at UCLA. "I didn't know a lot about college. I wasn't taught about it in my foster homes," she said. "I never thought it was in reach. No one told me what to do to even get there."

Andrea Gamboa and Linda Gallardo met as foster kids in the First Star Academies program to prepare foster youths to graduate high school and go to college. The University of Utah is teaming with Utah's foster care program to launch an academy. Now the two are roommates and attending a university.

First Star Academy did.

Gamboa was in foster care as long as she could remember, since age 5. By age 15, she had lived in nine different foster homes, changing schools and losing ground. She describes herself as a "troubled student. I was good at school, but I would get into a lot of trouble."

Her First Star Academy focused on many things, including making good decisions, catching up on classwork and forming bonds with the other foster youths. Her college roommate now is, in fact, a friend — “family, really” — whom she met in the academy. As she caught up in school and learned new skills, she grew more confident and changed both how she approached school and how she viewed herself. She took to heart advice to jump in wholeheartedly, joining clubs and participating in school activities, which gave her even more friends. She played sports and stayed busy.

"We tell them, regardless of your circumstances, you deserve to be on a college campus and we're going to help you get there," said Chan, who notes First Star provides case management and relationship building in a "long-term, intensive way."

It becomes so important to the foster youths that many of them volunteer as mentors to future classes once they graduate from college.

The U.'s pilot academy won't replace what the state already does to help youths in foster care get ready for independence. For instance, one emphasis in Utah has been helping kids find permanent connections, said Vail. That focus and need will remain. "We can work all day long teaching them skills, but they really need those relationships," she said, noting that statistics show how much foster youths need supportive people.

"If for some reason they leave without those permanent connections, that is where you start seeing the statistics that show they struggle."

Most of the connections happen naturally, she said, with extended family, friends, a teacher or someone in the community. But efforts are made to ensure each youth has meaningful ties to someone. The academy will enhance that, enlarging the pool of people who care about an individual.

The state already has specialists who focus on helping foster children navigate education and what happens after foster care, one working on education and the other on transitioning to adult life. The former doesn’t get involved until a youth is 16, while the latter joins the foster child’s team around age 14. Vail said the transition team provides those basic life skills classes, like budgeting, finance and cooking, but in compact form, unlike the First Star program. That will continue for the majority of foster youths who are not in First Star — a program they hope will eventually expand so that all foster youths have access to it, she said.

Moving forward

Even without an academy First Star, some kids in foster care buck steep odds, and Ballesteros is one of those. He and an older brother chose not to be adopted because of their age. Situations were different for some of his younger siblings.

After high school, Ballesteros joined the National Guard, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then enrolled at Weber State University, where he expects to earn a degree in social work next year.

Since aging out of foster care, Ballesteros has been an informal, on-call mentor to Utah youths. He's done a lot of advocacy work for at-risk and underprivileged youths with Christmas Box House in Ogden and Family and Child Services. Mostly, he works and volunteers with teenagers. They are at the point in their lives where his completely blew up.

He helped start a youth council for foster care that meets monthly and has been active with a regional council. He at one point chaired the state Youth Council. As part of that, Ballesteros and other council members have worked with legislators and state officials. He works at a day treatment program and focuses on recreation, like snowboarding or summer sports, to help youths who've abused substances or battled anxiety and depression, his focus recreation.

"When you get away from your problems, you have time to breathe," he said.

He's done well, but when people hold him up as an example, it makes him uneasy, like everything's supposed to be just fine. He's still working out a lot of things, like how to interact with his biological family now that he's an adult. His personal relationships have been challenging because, like many foster kids, he has trust issues. Some aspects of his life have not gone as well as others.

He believes efforts like First Star that help foster kids plan their future, especially one that includes college, are important.

Gamboa agrees. "I feel like the program should be big enough where every child has the opportunity to go through something like this," said Gamboa. "It was life-changing."

Anyone interested in helping with First Star at the University of Utah can go online at To volunteer specific skills, email