Abstract: First Stars Academy: An Innovative University-System Partnership Focused on Building Trusting Adult-Youth Relationships for Adolescents in Care (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

First Stars Academy: An Innovative University-System Partnership Focused on Building Trusting Adult-Youth Relationships for Adolescents in Care

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 12, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Melanie Minuche, BSW, Student, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Bridget Wesley, MA, Doctoral candidate, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL
Julia Pryce, PhD, Associate Professor, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Marissa Latini, BA, Student, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and PurposeThere are over 428,000 children in the U.S. child welfare system, a system which maintains three central tenants: safety, permanency, and well-being. Current and former foster youth consistently demonstrate difficulty in various domains of well-being, from academic performance (Zetlin, MacLeod, & Kimm, 2012) to mental health challenges (Longhofer, Floersch & Okpych, 2011). Further, foster youth of color are at risk of poorer outcomes, including overrepresentation in special education, which may result in increased risk of poor educational outcomes (Lash, 2017). Children of color are also less likely to exit the system than their White counterparts.  First Star Academy is a national model that seeks to promote the well-being and educational outcomes of foster youth through university partnerships, developmental support, and academic enrichment. This study sought to examine the impact of this model on youth at one of 13 national sites.

Methods: We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 15 youth of color participating in the First Star Academy at in a large Midwestern city. Interviews took place at two time points during the multi-year program. Participants were 14-19 years old, 25% female, 75% male, 83% African-American, and 17% Latinx.  Interviews centered on youths' perspectives on the impact of First Star, particularly related to relationships and identity development. The research team worked collaboratively to develop a code book and usedNVivo12 to code for themes within and across interviews. Using an iterative, interpretivist approach to data analysis (Patton, 2014), several central themes emerged.

Results: Analysis revealed the critical role of adult-to-youth relationships in participants’ experience in First Star. These relationships facilitated trust, supported group identity, and promoted well-being. Participants indicated that this occurred through the provision of space for identity exploration, self-reflection and community, as well as a sense of validation, togetherness and family-like connections. Data suggested that the relationship with the supportive adult provided for multiple needs for this developmental stage and population, including needs for nurturance, trust, and accountability. Group identity and sense of community also emerged as core to the program intervention and role of adults in supporting adolescent development.

Conclusion and Implications: The experience of the First Star Academy for its youth participants revealed the critical role of positive, consistent relationships with adults in youths’ well-being. When in the care of attentive adults, youth felt secure, supported, and trusted. For foster youth of color who lack stability at home, programs like First Star provide critical stability, education, and care for their well-being. These findings can inform the policy and practice community about the value of relationship-based programming for foster adolescents, which is echoed in the mentoring literature (Ahrens et al., 2011). Future research could include observations and interviews with the adults to explore the mechanisms contributing to positive relational dynamics that promote youth well-being. Given the overrepresentation of youth of color in foster care and the systemic barriers of racism and inequality present (Lash 2017), additional research should also explore how operating within these hegemonic systems may facilitate or hinder relationship building.