From Rutgers Today | July 22nd, 2015

CAMDEN — On paper, through academic records and evaluations, some of the 30 foster students from across South Jersey being evaluated by Rutgers Law–Camden Clinical Associate Professor Meredith L. Schalick and her two law students might seem problematic, possibly beyond reach.

This impression coincides with research on foster youth that shows some troubling outcomes, including high rates of young parenthood, unemployment, homelessness, inadequate health insurance, reliance on public assistance, severe mental illness, and incarceration. Just fifty percent of foster youth graduate from high school nationwide, and only three percent graduate from college.  But in person, these same kids s are dynamic, intelligent, full of hope. But in person, these same kids are dynamic, intelligent, full of hope.

The difference is a four-week residence program and monthly Saturday sessions  through the South Jersey First Star Collaborative in which the Rutgers Law professor and rising third-year law students Linwood Donelson and Leigh Kelsey O’Donnell have been evaluating the eighth through tenth graders and ultimately will advocate on their behalf.

On Tuesday, July 21, from 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. the group of 30 foster youth involved with the First Star Academy will visit Rutgers University–Camden, with stops in its law school’s moot courtroom and a “Know Your Legal Rights” lesson. They will then take part in campus tours and activities planned throughout Rutgers University–Camden, exposing the students to another college campus, as the collaborative, funded by the Pascale Skyes Foundation, is based at Rowan University. Exposing the youth to higher education could be critical to how this population transitions into worthwhile adult life.

Schalick, who directs the Child and Family Advocacy Clinic at Rutgers Law–Camden, has partnered with the agency of the South Jersey First Star Collaborative, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties to provide grant-funded educational evaluations and advocacy for the foster youth enrolled at the Rowan First Star Academy. At universities across the country, the First Star Foundation has started academies that involve mentoring, academic tutoring, self-esteem building, and advocacy through monthly Saturday sessions and a month-long residential stay on a college campus.

While Schalick works with the South Jersey First Star Collaborative, she is also involved in an effort to try to start a First Star Academy at each Rutgers campus.

“The focus of the program is to get kids ready to be successful at post-secondary education. Our job is to assess how they are doing right now by gathering all of those school records, reviewing the data and getting input from the youth and their caregivers to create a plan for successful and on-time high school graduation,” says Schalick, who has been working with the South Jersey Collaborative for the past six months.

“When school districts find out about a child’s involvement in the foster care system, they tend to steer foster kids away from college or college prep courses. Our work with the First Star Academy is to open the kids’ eyes to possibilities and advocate for their future by pushing the school districts to meet each child’s needs,” she says.

According to Rutgers Law–Camden student Linwood Donelson, who hails from Salem County, preparing for the college admissions process is support he would have appreciated as a first-generation college student. “I did not have a lot of guidance as to how to prepare to go to college, how to prepare and best position myself for admission,” he says. Now Donelson serves on two boards of education and says he values the day-to-day experience of helping students work toward their goals. “This experience has made me strongly consider staying in the area of education with my legal career. I have always enjoyed being involved with education and education policy and this program has made me even more attached to those two areas.”

Fellow law student Leigh Kelsey O’Donnell is equally impressed with the youth  and has found the experience on track with her professional goals. “I plan to continue advocating for and working with juveniles from at-risk populations,” she says. But her passion for these students comes from her own upbringing in a family with an adopted sibling. “The children, who are oftentimes transient and do not yet have effective advocacy skills for themselves, can fall through the cracks in the education system if someone is not looking out for them.”

Schalick says the program most definitely has been eye opening for her ambitious law students.

“They get to know these kids on paper through their records, and then meet them in person and see how they are doing in the month-long experience. The two don’t match up,” says the Rutgers Law–Camden professor. “There’s something about the sense of community and having a clean slate to show us who you are. Sometimes these kids don’t get that opportunity in their home school district and it can limit their futures.”