Choosing to Change Connects Chicago Teens to Therapy and Mentors

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The trauma-informed program is growing with a $7.5 million investment from the city’s school district.

Last fall, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would spend $7.5 million to expand a trauma-informed program for teens that connects them to weekly therapy and dedicated mentors.

The program — called choose to change — recruits 1,000 students and new community partners to significantly integrate its model into the public school system. CPS is rethinking school safety and partnering with community organizations to create alternative safety options in response to student-led application for schools without police.

“We need to make sure that we look at safety holistically, which is not just about physical safety, but emotional and relational safety as well,” says Jadine Chou, safety manager at Chicago Public School. “All of these things need to be in place for a student to feel safe.”

Choose to Change is offered by two non-profit organizations, Home and help for children and Youth Advocacy Programs Inc., which has developed a six-month program for teens who are disconnected from school, affiliated with gangs or victims of traumatic events, or who have previously come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Youth Advocacy Programs provide comprehensive services through an Advocate and Home and help for children offers weekly behavioral health sessions.

Since its 2015 launch in Englewood, Choose to Change has expanded to other Chicago neighborhoods to provide 800 students with attorney services and counseling. The data showed the program helps reduce participants’ arrests for violent crimes by nearly 50% and increases their school attendance by approximately one week. (The study compared youth in the program to youth who did not participate but also experienced issues such as being disconnected from school.)

As Choose to Change grew, Chicago public schools increasingly turned to community partners to help them rethink school safety. Last year, the school district organized Saint Sabina’s Arch, TO CONSTRUCT, COFI Power heat pump, Mikva Challenge and HERE IS developing trauma-informed “whole-school safety programs” as alternatives to the School Resource Officer program, which assigns Chicago police officers to individual public schools. Last year’s schools started voting whether to keep police inside schools or instead invest in alternative security approaches.

Choose to change, and Chicago Public Schools have been committed since the program began. “When C2C was first developed it was a community-based model, but one thing we realized very quickly was that the center of the communities we work in are neighborhood schools,” explains Julie Noobler, Director of Metro Behavioral Health Services for Children’s Home. & Aid. “We needed to meet these young people where they were, so we started reaching out to high schools and building that relationship.”

In 2019, Choose to Change iterated to “really integrate into schools,” says Noobler. “We began to work closely with selected schools to identify young people who needed this service the most.”

In these schools, Choose to Change began to act as a link between the school administration, the families and the student. “We were able to coordinate the media [of Choose to Change] with the support students receive at school,” says Chou. “Essentially, the student is surrounded by people who care about their well-being and these adults work in coordination.” During remote learning, for example, Choose to Change worked with Chicago Public Schools to distribute devices to students who needed them.

For Yafae, a student who joined the program last summer, much of the program ended with his school life. “It’s an additional, more family support at school,” he says. In addition to dedicated mentoring, once a week he participated in group counseling sessions with his fellow students. A highlight of the program, he says, was attending a Chicago Bears practice with some of his football teammates. Another was the focus on mental health. “Every Wednesday we talked about mental health, what we think about mental health, and mental health tips and insights,” he explains.

Chelsea Hopson, a program therapist, says counseling is a crucial support. “A lot of our students have been through trauma and may have trust issues, so for us to talk about trust and be consistent every week, they start to trust themselves, myself and other defenders,” says -she. . “Once we have this environment of trust, we have the flexibility to do whatever people need.”

The $7.5 million investment is the first Chicago Public Schools has made in the program — it establishes Choose to Change as an official school support system. Since July, Youth Advocate Programs Inc. has recruited 640 students into the program and aims to hire at least 200 more. Referrals from other community organizations have just begun; they will bring about 250 additional students.

“We focus on community organizations that have longstanding relationships with community schools,” says Noobler. “We are focused on how to significantly expand and broaden our reach beyond what two organizations can do.”

Children’s Home & Aid and Youth Advocate Programs Inc. have just completed their first training to integrate four community agencies and are developing a service guide to share their knowledge of the programs with them.

“It will be a rolling listing,” Chou says. “It’s a recruitment process where we work with students to get them on board when they’re ready to be on board.” Chicago Public Schools is seeking $4 million from philanthropy to continue funding the program, with plans to eventually attract 500 additional students.

Choose to Change representatives hope this can become an alternative school safety model as Chicago continues the debate and discussion around schools without police. “We’re doubling down on the choice to change,” Chou says, “as one of the tools we use to keep kids safe.”

Emilie Nonko is a social justice and solutions-focused journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and public transit.

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