Central Illinois Program Creates Postsecondary Pathways for Youth in Foster Care

by Chequita Brown / Feb 6, 2020

It’s 9:15 on a Saturday morning and youth begin to sluggishly saunter into a room. There’s a faint whisper of “Good morning” barely escaping one First Star Scholar’s lips as he finds a seat, creates a square with his arms, and tucks in his head in an attempt to catch a few moments of sleep. As music plays in the background, a staff member exclaims “Gooooood morning—hey, hey, good morning!” The Scholars hear the call to attention and slowly reposition their bodies, a sign of engagement. “Welcome to Saturday Academy!” says Dr. Deneca Winfrey Avant, director of First Star Academy at Illinois State University (ISU). “Scholars, it’s good to see you!”

First Star Academy at ISU was launched in 2017 to serve high school students who receive foster-care services in central Illinois. Participants are identified as First Star Scholars and receive academic support, mentoring assistance, and engage in enrichment activities, helping them gain life guidance and college-prep skills.

Established in 1999 at UCLA, First Star Academy helps create pathways for the successful transition of foster youth to college and career preparatory programs and services. The Saturday Academy is a major component within the organization, an international college preparation program for foster youth. Through partnerships with child-welfare agencies, school districts, and universities, youth participants attend monthly Saturday Academy sessions throughout the schoolyear that focus on academic mentoring and life-skills workshops. First Star Academy has expanded its reach during the last two decades and now has 12 academies that serve more than 400 students, including at ISU. 

Additionally, youth and teens participate in a residential summer immersion program on a selected university campus. As of 2019, First Star program outcomes helped lead to a 98% high school graduation rate among foster youth who completed the four-year program, and an 88% college enrollment rate that included both two-year and four-year institutions (First Star, 2019).

One First Star Scholar said she appreciated the opportunity to get the college experience and the 'extra support of another family.'"                    

One First Star Scholar at the ISU academy said she appreciated the opportunity to get the college experience and the “extra support of another family.” Another attendee reiterated the familial importance of the program, saying, “It gives me confidence in knowing that I’ll always have someone in my life to back me up.”

First Star staff members at ISU are preparing for the summer immersion program, which is scheduled for three weeks in June. First Star Scholars in the program will engage in English, math, life-skills, and artistic-expressions classes. Participants will also have the opportunity to complete the credit-bearing course College Success through a partnership with nearby Heartland Community College.

The summer immersion program includes fun and downtime as well. While building lasting connections with peers, the First Star Scholars will participate in a range of enrichment activities such as college tours, trips to museums and waterparks, fitness and recreation activities, and mentoring opportunities with ISU staff and faculty members.

The leadership of Drs. Deneca Winfrey Avant and Doris M. Houston has been central to the success of First Star Academy at ISU. The program is administered through the Center for Child Welfare and Adoption Studies and funded by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, as well as by a private donor.

ISU is currently recruiting First Star youth for the organization's 2019-2020 cohort. Individuals who are interested in joining the First Star family at ISU are encouraged to apply and can attend an informational orientation to learn more about the programs, orientation, and services. The event will take place on Tuesday, February 18. All potential scholars, caregivers, and caseworkers are required to attend the orientation.

Contact Deneca Winfrey Avant for more information about the program.


First Star Impact Report. First Star (2019).