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UCLA summer academy aims to steer foster children toward college

The kids live on campus, study, go on outings and in the bargain get laptops, flip cams and four UC credits. 'This program took me to another place,' one participant says.

August 07, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Foster children learn tai chi in a program that sponsors and fundraisers hope will develop into a year-round boarding school for such kids.
Foster children learn tai chi in a program that sponsors and fundraisers… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

For foster children, the prospect of ever completing college is remote: 24% of the general population will someday wear a university cap and gown, but fewer than 3% of all foster children ever earn a degree.

But a privately funded pilot program at UCLA hopes to improve the odds.

The First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Summer Academy is a 5 1/2-week program that sponsors and fundraisers hope will one day develop into a year-round boarding school for college-bound foster children in Los Angeles County.

On Friday, 14-year-old Thalia and 23 other foster youth celebrated their "graduation" from the program's first session.

The incoming ninth-grader brushed up on math, wrote poetry, learned to meditate and visited Disneyland, Universal Studios and a Nickelodeon TV set. In the bargain, Thalia and the other participants each got a laptop computer, a flip cam — and four University of California college credits.

"This program took me to another place," Thalia said. (The county Department of Children and Family Services asked that the last names of the students not be published.)

Los Angeles County has nearly 19,000 foster children. Many bear physical and emotional scars from chaotic home environments and dangerous neighborhoods. The biological parents of some have died. Other parents have spent time in jail. In the last three years, 70 foster children have died because of abuse or neglect.

For youngsters whose dreams have been clouded by such grim realities, simply being on the UCLA campus provided a positive jolt.

"UCLA is the size of a country, and it's all uphill and we have to walk everywhere," one boy said.

The scholars were housed in a former sorority house across Hilgard Avenue from the UCLA campus. At an evening session they heard retired L.A. Kings left winger Luc Robitaille talk about how he felt lost as a child but learned to excel through the discipline of hockey. Chef Mario Batali sent cooking teachers to demonstrate how to prepare healthy foods that cost less than fast food.

The children arose each weekday morning at 8 and practiced tai chi. They learned to meditate and pondered concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning." They made and shared videos, critiquing one another's work with exuberant applause. They shared meals in the academy house and a dormitory dining hall. Lights went out at 11 p.m.

"They were really guarded when they first came," said Destiny Fortier, 20, a peer counselor entering her fourth year at UCLA. "They formed cliques, and there was a lot of drama. Now those have broken, and everyone's open."

For Sarah, one participant, just being on campus was a thrill. "I'm a college student before I even walked onto a high school campus," she marveled. "Who would ever think a foster kid would have a flip cam?"

To qualify, each student was required to have an open case file through the Department of Children and Family Services.

Program director Wally Kappeler, 37, a former New Jersey elementary school vice principal, was struck by how seriously the youngsters took the academics. "The giddiness that comes along with being in a classroom quickly vanished," he said.

"We deliberately did not choose only high achievers," said Peter Samuelson, a film and television producer and founder of First Star Inc., a Washington-based charity that helped formulate the program.

Samuelson credited Kathleen Kelley Reardon, a USC professor and First Star board member, with suggesting the idea of a boarding school for foster children on a university campus. UCLA quickly got on board, and the Department of Children and Family Services helped to drum up funds. Other schools, including George Mason University in Virginia and the University of Rhode Island, are looking to start similar programs.

Support for the UCLA program came from five nonprofit groups dedicated at least in part to the health, education and protection of children: the Mario Batali Foundation, the Hasbro Children's Fund, the Stuart Foundation, the California Community Foundation and the College Board, best known for administering the SAT. Sage Publications, an independent publisher, also donated. In all, benefactors contributed $305,000.

The results are "even more positive than I could have hoped for," said Janina Montero, UCLA's vice chancellor of student affairs. "They are buying into the concept of college."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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