CITY HALL — They said the program felt like “home” and being surrounded by family.

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Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks (right) and Sgt. Rudy Camarena sit down for lunch with foster youth and answer questions about careers in law enforcement. (Paul Alvarez Jr. editor@smdp.com)

Twenty-seven high school-aged foster kids participated in a pilot program — First Star Bruin Guardian Scholars Academy —  this summer, which officers high school and college credit courses as well as a slice of college life on the UCLA campus.

Since its inception three years ago, the program admitted 30 students from high schools across L.A. County and will follow them as rising ninth graders until college. Educators said it was an opportunity to be immersed in college life and increase the number of foster youth going to college.

It was also the program’s first career field trip to City Hall to hear officials talk about their own careers and learn about sustainability and emergency preparedness.

Carlos Collard, senior administrative analyst, introduced the idea of a career field trip to the program. He said it was important to get a glimpse of local government because it’s part of every day life.

“It’s really all encompassing education but also life education and that exposure to different things in life they don’t have access to,” Collard said.

Collard, who is a former L.A. County foster youth, said the possibilities are endless for the kids.

There are 35,488 children receiving child welfare services in L.A. County as of June 2013, according to the Department of Children and Family Services website. Studies have shown that foster youth change schools more often than their non-foster peers. Children who change schools frequently make less academic progress than their peers, and each time they change schools they fall farther behind.

Kenny, one of the high school students who’s been with the UCLA program since its inception in 2011, said initially, the thought of staying on a college campus for a whole month was exciting. The Daily Press was asked to not publish the last names of the youth enrolled in the program.

At 16, he’s been in the foster system his entire life.

“I’ve gotten a lot out of the program period. It’s like a support group,” Kenny said. “These people I live with for a month, even though it’s a month, I felt like I’ve known these people for a lifetime.”

He said he wants to double major in music production and business with a minor in kinesiology and his dream university is UCLA, which he calls “home.” He said he enjoys writing music and can play the guitar and drums.

The program is a collaboration between UCLA and First Star, Inc., a national charitable organization that advocates for abused children.

Only 2 percent of foster youth will receive a college degree, Yolanda Wright, director of First Star Bruin Guardian Scholars Academy, said. She said Santa Monica was a good choice to visit for the field trip because of the proximity between the city and UCLA.

“Even though our students represent so many different high schools they feel UCLA is home. They feel connected, it’s their third summer and they feel part of UCLA and the community,” Wright said.

Most of the applicants were referrals from the Department of Children and Family Services who wrote an essay and were accepted, Wright said. The college courses are taught by UCLA staff while the high school courses are taught by certified teachers, Wright said. The students stay in UCLA dorms for four weeks.

The program, which ended with a celebration Aug. 3, has the students come back to the UCLA campus once a month for college workshops and tutoring for the rest of the year until the following summer.

Andrea, 16, who has been in the foster system since she was 6 years old, said the program changed her perspective. Now she said she wants to go to college and do something better with her life because of the mentors she made in the program.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Andrea said. “I just wish more people were able to do more of the same things I am doing now because it’s going to be great for the future.”

Kenny said the end of the program will be “bittersweet.”

“It’s in between,” Kenny said. “I don’t want to go home because I know life gets back to regular. I’m also excited to go back to school. I just like going to school.”

 

ameera@smdp.com