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Giving Youth In Foster Care Hope for College

Being a child in foster care is hard, and it does not get easier when childhood and foster care ends. Just about everyone recognizes the importance of education – primary, secondary and post-secondary – and all the evidence shows that children in foster care have poorer educational outcomes due to the trauma they experience and the transitory character of existence in foster care.


Estimates are that nationally only 30 percent of children who grow up in foster care graduate from high school. According to child welfare experts at Casey Family Programs, about 7 to 13 percent of children in foster care enroll in higher education. And while 24 percent of adults nationally get a bachelor’s or an advanced degree, only about 2 percent of youth in foster care do. UCONN Hisley


The lack of access to and success in post-secondary education is something Connecticut is trying hard to address. For many years, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families has proudly offered youth in foster care financial support for post-secondary education. That could mean attending two or four-year college, a training program to gain entry to a trade, or other post-high school educational regiment designed to lead to a good career and an independent, successful adulthood. In each of the last four years, more than 500 youth participated annually for an average of 544 youth a year. The youth can get the support up until they reach 23 years old, and financial support is capped at the cost of attending one of the Connecticut state university system schools.


As proud as the State can be of supporting foster youth education in this way, the professionals who work for the Department’s school district know that youth in foster care need both the opportunity and  the encouragement to take advantage of the opportunity.


Matt Folan, the Department’s superintendent of schools, says many youth in foster care may not even be thinking about attending college. “A lot of them may think that college is not for them – college may be the furthest thing from their minds, but it is our responsibility to expose our students to early college and career opportunities during high school when both academic and social supports are readily available” he said.


Inspiring hope and confidence that a youth in care can attend college is the idea behind the UConn Rising Scholars Program (URS), which the Department initiated in a partnership with the University of Connecticut’s Center for Academic Programs. Since the program started in 2013, 158 youth in foster care who attend high school and have potential to advance to higher education have participated, according to data provided by the program.


The central element of URS is an intensive four-week summer immersion experience at the UCONN Storrs campus. The students live in an on-campus dormitory, attend classes, and have access to the same facilities as any other UCONN student. The academic courses offered over the last six years include English, math, social studies and sciences that are taught by certified teachers and UCONN graduate students. After the morning academic coursework, afternoons are devoted to learning about various elements of life in college, including financial aid, college admissions, study and other practical skills. Evenings are less structured opportunities to enjoy athletic and social activities.


In addition, before students come to Storrs in July, monthly “Academic Day” meetings are held on campus that offers support year round, said Maria Pastorelli, a Department post-secondary education consultant. The monthly meetings also help students prepare for college by offering information and skill development related to financial literacy, health, and college admissions and finance.


The entire experience – both the summer immersion program and the monthly meetings are designed to “enlighten youth to the possibility of college and provide first-hand experience of college life,” Ms. Pastorelli said. “Bringing them to a college campus helps them to see themselves there. It gives them the confidence and encouragement they need to stay on track academically and pursue college.”


Rising Scholars, which is 100 percent funded by the Department, has been overseen by UCONN’s Center for Academic Programs since its inception by Susana Ulloa, the director of high school initiatives. Ms. Ulloa said URS also employs a program coordinator, Alex Katz, who assists students one-on-one to secure tutoring, navigate the admissions process, and access academic advising – the nuts and bolts of success on a college campus. While the coordinator “makes sure the students have support year round,” Ms. Ulloa said, the key to the program’s success is “we treat them like college students.”


Ms. Ulloa said 35 students from 27 distinct high schools are currently in the program and that the 158 students participating from 2013 to the present have come from 103 high schools across the state. Of those who participated, 83 percent completed the program, and of those who completed, 99 percent graduated high school, 95 percent were accepted to a college, and 93 percent enrolled in college. In addition to UCONN and all four Connecticut State universities, students were enrolled at Norwich University, Roger Williams University, Sacred Heart University, Bennett College, Mitchell College, Bentley University, Oakwood University, Delaware State University, Mercy College, University of Bridgeport, Mount Ida College, Fisher College, the Culinary Institute of America, and several Connecticut community colleges.


Rising Scholars plays a crucial role in helping youth who face unique challenges to overcome them and take advantage of opportunities that most young people in Connecticut take for granted.


“This program plays a critical role in helping high school students transition to college,” Ms. Ulloa said. “Considering the personal and academic needs of the students, this program is vitally important. The students in the program are amazing kids – resilient, really smart and very hard working.


“It’s been a privilege to work with them,” Ms. Ulloa concluded.