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Learning About Trust at the U: First Star Academy Supports Foster Care Youth

By Michael Malone
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 4, 2017)—Trust comes painstakingly slow for many foster care youth, those who spend their childhoods tossed from family to family as they tumble through “the system,” often wondering where “home” will be tomorrow.


School of Law Professor Kele Stewart and counselors enjoy some leisure time with First Star students (not pictured).

Yet for the 20 rising 9th-graders in foster care that comprise the first cohort of the First Star Academy of the University of Miami, “home” has been the University’s Coral Gables campus for five weeks this summer. And trust—together with math, language arts, science and life-skills—has been the focus of their learning as part of this national model that provides a pathway to college for foster care youth.

Bringing such an ambitious program that works with at-risk youth to a college campus requires both visionary leadership and committed partners. The effort has been fueled by the passion of School of Law Professor Kele Stewart and the planning team of Professor Laura Kohn-Wood and Associate Professor Wendy Morrison-Cavendish, both in the School of Education and Human Development (SOEHD).

“Everyone in our program has a trauma history,” Stewart said. “We talked with case managers to determine who would be a good fit. As long as the student fit the criteria and wanted to be here, we were determined to give everyone an opportunity.”

The teens spent their mornings strengthening academics; afternoons focused on life skills, with weekly field trip to see the murals in Wynwood, the Frost Science Museum, a dance performance, and doing a beach clean-up. They ate in the Hecht Dining Hall and slept in the residential colleges.

The same group—with the potential to add 10 more students—returns for the next three summers. During the school year, UM staff from the School of Education and the School of Law will coordinate monthly Saturday meetings with the adolescents and their parents or caregivers while also providing educational advocacy support. The program is funded in this first phase by The Children’s Trust and by Our Kids of Miami Dade/Monroe.


Program director Maria Pia de Castro counsels one of the First Star Academy students.

The dramatic change of scenery, and the commitment and support of the UM team has yielded fast progress for many of the participants.

“You already see the wheels turning,” commented Stewart just a few weeks into the program. “They’re being exposed to a lot of different things, and the youth are very engaged, asking a lot of questions. Their questions are very empathetic and insightful. It’s been nice to see how they’re responding,”

“Meeting the students is huge. Now you have a face, a personality, a history to build around,” explained Morrison-Cavendish, whose research and expertise focuses on special education and juvenile justice education. “There is so much variability in their needs. Being able to meet with students and talk with them to explain that we’re going to be building this together…and to reinforce that this is a four-year program, that we are committing to them—that’s something they generally don’t hear.”

Kohn-Wood and Morrison-Cavendish have been instrumental in developing the design and research protocol for the program. The program promotes positive behaviors that will enable the teens to graduate high school, and enter and succeed in college.

“We use our practice and research to apply to a community in need,” said Kohn-Wood. “Foster kids are one of the most vulnerable groups. It’s heartbreaking that there are federal dollars available to go to many youth, but they’re not able to take advantage of it.”

Federal and some state dollars are available for foster youth to attend college, but lacking the skills, the study habits, the support, they inevitably drop out. First Star seeks to lay a foundation for success.

Deborah Perez, a First Star counselor and UM alumna who is in the second year of her Ph.D. program at the U, understands the challenges the youth would face in navigating the transition to college without an oar of support.

A foster child herself, Perez was raised by her Cuban grandfather—she honors him with a tattoo of his youthful face on her left forearm. She grew up an overachiever, propelled by a drive to excel in one of Miami’s most under-served and impoverished neighborhoods. Perez served as a youth rep on several agency boards, including the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami. Former UM President Donna Shalala sat on the same board and took special notice of this incredible young leader.

“You’re going to come to UM,” Shalala told her. Offered such an incredible opportunity, Perez chose to attend.

“The first weeks at college were a nightmare, I cried myself to sleep every night—no one to talk to, no one to advise me. I was a first-generation college kid,” Perez remembered.


From left, counselors Stephan Ambrose and Alkean Smith, director Maria Pia De Castro, and teacher Deborah Perez talk with Professor Kele Stewart.

The First Star Academy is composed of a cadre of UM alumni and students who serve as teachers, advisors, and support staff. Program director Maria Pia De Castro, a UM alumna, adjunct, and former Miami-Dade County Public School teacher, is the only full-time staff.

“The kids see the unity and cohesiveness of our team—and it’s really good for them to see. It’s been a very positive experience,” said Pia De Castro, adding “we’ve had to prove ourselves from the beginning, to show that we’re really here for them, that it’s not just a summer thing.”

Stephan Ambrose, a rising junior studying public health at UM, Ryan Severdija, a rising junior studying biology, and Alkean Smith, a student at Miami Dade College North, are the three male counselors.

Ambrose says, “The kids test us, wondering if we’re here for the money [stipend paid to counselors], to exploit them. ‘No, we’re here to help your self-awareness,’ we tell them.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster—wonderful some days, some days a tug of war, like we pull them and they pull us. We’ve got through to a couple of them, the others—we don’t ignore them, but we give them their space,” says Smith, noting that the discussion groups where personal stories are shared have had a big impact on him. “The other day one of the kids shared that his mom passed, and mine did too. I feel that.”

Nicole Swanson, a SOEHD alum, is one of the science teachers, and Ambar Alfaro, a School of Communication alumna, teaches language arts.

The summer residential program ended on Friday. The first family session is scheduled for early September to reconvene with the students after they’ve started their high school classes, and to meet with foster parents and caretakers to continue to build family bonds.

“This summer will be our baseline to decide where we really want to go, what these kids need and want, and to develop the plan for the partnerships that we want to develop,” says Morrison-Cavendish.

“We’re doing First Star for a reason, and this program has great potential. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to work on a project with people who are really committed to these students for the right reasons. This is really about the kids,” she adds.


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Picking Florida’s Federal Judges

 UM News

Georgina Angones

Georgina Angones

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 14, 2017)—Florida’s two U.S. senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, have reappointed Miami Law’s Georgina A. Angones, assistant dean for law development and alumni relations, to the federal Judicial Nominating Commission for the Southern District of Florida.

University of Miami Trustee Manny Kadre, a businessman and lawyer who has served on the commission in the past, was also appointed to the commission, as its chair.

As JNC members, Angones and Kadre will help review applications, interview candidates, and recommend up to three nominees to fill each vacancy on the federal bench in the Southern District of Florida. Encompassing nine counties from Monroe to Indian River, the Southern District currently has four vacancies, which the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts considers emergencies because of the district’s heavy caseload.

“There is a shortage of judges so we’re going to be very busy,” said Angones, who earned her bachelor’s degree at UM in 1972 and has served in a number of capacities at the University since 1973.

That decision will ultimately rest with President Donald Trump, but Nelson and Rubio will have a say, too. Each of Florida’s three JNCs submit their recommendations to the senators, who can decide which names, if any, to forward to the White House for the president’s consideration.

Another UM alumnus, Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, B.B.A. ’96, has a major role in the judicial nominating process. In May, Rubio appointed him statewide chair of the commission, which in addition to the Southern District, oversees the nominating processes in Florida’s Middle and Northern federal court districts.

Angones, an active civic leader who is past chair of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, has served on the boards of the Miami Dade Public Library, The Archdiocese of Miami Vision 2000, Miami Children’s Hospital Board of Trustees and the Junior League of Miami.

Kadre, the chief executive officer of MBB Auto Group, earned his law degree from Fordham Law School and was one of U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno’s earliest law clerks. A 1978 graduate of Miami Law, Moreno was president of the Student Bar Association during his time at UM.

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Honoring a Champion for Children

Bernard Perlmutter and Whitney Untiedt, chair-elect  of the Public Interest Section of The Florida Bar

Bernard Perlmutter, with Whitney Untiedt, chair-elect of the Public Interest Section of The Florida Bar

UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 29, 2017)—For the second time in his career, Miami Law’s Bernard Perlmutter, a longtime champion of Florida’s most vulnerable children, has received The Florida Bar’s Honorable Hugh S. Glickstein Child Advocacy Award for his many contributions to child law.

“Professor Perlmutter has been at the forefront of advocating for children’s rights for decades, and Florida’s most vulnerable children have benefitted greatly from his work,” the bar said in announcing the award bestowed by its Children’s Rights Committee of the Public Interest Law Section.

A professor of clinical legal education who 20 years ago founded and co-directs Miami Law’s Children & Youth Law Clinic, Perlmutter has represented thousands of abused, abandoned and neglected children, taught countless students to be their advocates, and helped advance and protect child rights by litigating numerous federal and state court class action lawsuits seeking reform of Florida’s foster care system. He was involved in the landmark Florida Supreme Court case that established due process protections, including the right to an attorney and a pre-commitment hearing, for foster children committed by the state to psychiatric facilities.

He’s also been involved in cases challenging the death penalty for juvenile defendants and the shackling of children in juvenile court, and for protecting children’s medical privacy rights in juvenile and family court hearings.

A member of the Florida Bar Commission on the Legal Needs of Children, he has served on the boards of directors of Florida’s Children First, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, the National Association of Counsel for Children Law Office Project Advisory Board, among others.

In addition to the Glickstein Award, which Perlmutter received in 2002, he has received many other honors for his advocacy, including the National Association of Counsel for Children’s Outstanding Legal Advocacy Award, the Clinical Legal Education Association’s Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Law Case or Project, the C. Clyde Atkins Civil Liberties Award from the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the inaugural Miami-Dade County Children’s Trust Champion for Children Award, and the Mental Health Advocate of the Year Award from the Florida Statewide Advocacy Council.

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School of Law Offers Legal Consultations for Undocumented/DACA Students at UM

The School of Law’s Immigration Clinic is offering confidential and free
consultations to UM students who are undocumented or in DACA (Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals) status. Interested students should email
[email protected] and ask for an appointment. Professors
Romy Lerner and Rebecca Sharpless, practicing immigration lawyers, will be
providing the consultations. Please note that these consultations are only for students who are undocumented or in DACA status.

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Miami Law Graduate Named Trump’s Chief of Staff

Reince Priebus

Reince Priebus

UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (November 14, 2016)—Reince Priebus, a Miami Law alumnus and chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been tapped to be White House chief of staff for President-elect Donald J. Trump.

A Wisconsin native, Priebus graduated from the University of Miami School of Law cum laude with a J.D. degree in 1998. He is credited with deftly reorganizing the RNC and digging it out of financial turmoil.

As chief of staff, Priebus is being looked upon as a positive connector between the Republican establishment and the Trump White House.

William P. VanderWyden, assistant dean for professional development at Miami Law, worked closely with Priebus during his three years at the law school.

“Always a positive personality in the law school community, he was an encouraging and influential force among his peers,” said VanderWyden, who was associate dean of students when Priebus was at Miami Law.

While on campus, Priebus served as president of the Student Bar Association from 1997-98. He regularly wrote columns for the law student newspaper, Res Ipsa Loquitur, where he was also a copy editor.

Law Professor David Abraham remembers Priebus as a student in his Immigration and Citizenship Law class.

“Reince was a very engaged campus politician,” Abraham said. “I believe that having seen the complexity around the social, economic, and human aspects of immigration, Reince should be able to provide a nuanced understanding of what’s good for America and its people. Let’s hope he does.”

While in law school, Priebus clerked for the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Los Angeles.

VanderWyden said Priebus was also “instrumental in encouraging his peers to participate in the Class Gift Program that we administered in 1998.”

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