Programs to keep kids off streets during violent summer may end

August 6, 2013

WBEZ/Katie O'Brien
Fenger High School keeps kids' calendars packed over the summer. But many of those programs are in jeopardy due to a lack of funding.

Most kids can’t wait for summer; they’re itching to get out of school and into the world. But when that world lacks basic resources--like food, shelter and safety--summer could be the scariest time of year.

On the far south side of Chicago, there’s a school that offers an oasis--but its funding might soon run dry.

And as a recent graduate Abryanna Morris put it, there’s really nowhere else for kids to go.

“Kids are involved in gangs because that’s the only thing to turn to, at the end of the day. Because there’s nothing at all in the Roseland community to do but to go be with a gang...there’s nothing for us to do,” Morris explained.

Roseland begins where the Red Line ends. Nearly 20 percent of residents are unemployed. In the last year, more than a dozen people were killed in Roseland.

Yolanda Lucas has lived in the community for 30 years. She said violence has changed the neighborhood--that it doesn’t feel safe or secure.

“There’s no jobs, there’s so much tension out there on the street. Everything is a little...like, panicky. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just not comfortable,” Lucas said.

Lucas and her husband have five kids---her babies, twin girls, will be juniors next year at Fenger High School. They, like many kids in the neighborhood, take a strategic route to school. Along the way, there are safety officers posted in what are called “hot zones.”

“For my kids, because now they have all this block-to-block gang activity...‘I don’t like 111th, 113th is over here, we don’t get along with them...’” Lucas described. “It used to be neighborhood by neighborhood...no, it’s block by block: State, Michigan, Wentworth, Yale...all the blocks against each other...so that mean I gotta go around this way to get to school versus going this way,” Lucas continued.

Some likened it to a war zone.

“What’s happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is happening in Roseland...there are incidents of post-traumatic stress that our young people are facing,” Robert Spicer, culture and climate specialist at Fenger High School, said.

Spicer’s job is to create a culture of peace at a school where high-risk is the norm. He said many kids aren’t getting the mental health supports they need to deal with violence-related post-traumatic stress that’s going on in the community.

Spicer and Fenger’s principal, Elizabeth Dozier, both remembered noticing early on in their tenures that things were especially heated before a long break.

“Before Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks, spring breaks, we used to have here in our first couple years, the kids would just fight...what we realized it’s the stress, honestly speaking, the stress of, OK so a lot of kids are going to go home, there’s not going to be a meal, they’re going to go into some really trying situations...we have children living in abandoned buildings; it’s real, real deal stuff...” Dozier recalled. “And so they get stressed out and then that comes out in the form of aggression because they’re teenagers.”

And so, she reasoned, that as teenagers, that stress tends to come out in the form of aggression.

Nearly four years ago, after the particularly brutal death of Fenger honors student Derrion Albert, attention and resources flooded the school. Dozier took a $6-million federal grant and poured it into mentoring, after-school programs, counselors and security officers trained in de-escalation.

Fenger became an oasis--a safe place full of opportunities for every student.

Psychiatrist and violence-prevention expert Carl Bell said it’s not surprising then that Fenger students would be anxious to be out for summer.

“Let me put it to you this way: If I lived in a war zone and I was safe, away from the front lines...and you told me, "OK, time for you to go back to the front lines...I'd be kind of upset,” Bell said.

Which is why Dozier and her team have developed a strategy to deal with summer breaks.

In the school’s teachers lounge, Dozier erected a board with every student's name on it. Colors and tiers track the kids’ summer activities. She wanted every kid, especially those who are likely to find trouble, to do something, to remain connected to the school in some way. But even with a strategy in place, Dozier couldn’t ensure their safety after leaving the confines of the school. 

A student was shot late one Saturday night or early Sunday morning over one of the summer’s early weekends. Dozier was notified by Chicago Public Schools the following Monday morning. She went to the hospital, thinking he might be there--but he wasn’t. So then she went to his home...and he wasn’t there either. As she was running around the neighborhood looking for him, she got a call from her staff at Fenger--the student was at school.

“He got on his crutches and walked here [Fenger], he wanted to make sure he was here for the program that started on Monday...” Dozier said. “These programs are important to kids; and you would think a kid like that would be at home, in bed or whatever, but no, he’s here. Him and his mom came to the school, made sure he was all set to go...and he was here,” Dozier marveled.

But many of those programs may soon be unavailable. Fenger's federal grant runs out at the end of August.

Ideally, Bell said, the playing field would be level and all kids would have the same opportunities. But given the reality in Roseland, he said it’s better to have had something--even if only temporarily.

“If there's a shipwreck and there's 20 people in the water but only 10 spots on the boat...don't just leave me in the water: take me on the boat, dry me off, feed me, let me be dry for a couple hours then push me back in the water and get somebody else on the boat. I’d rather be on the boat for a minute or two than not be in the boat at all,” Bell reasoned.

He said that getting something gives a person a sense that there is something good out there.

“We're sorry they can't stay but knowing that there is a moral order that eventually prevails...an ideal where people are treated fairly is important,” Bell said.

And, Bell emphasized, it is important to continue floating life rafts Roseland's way to help young people’s resiliency.

SGA Youth and Family Services has implemented over 300 out-of-school-time activities at Fenger over these past few years. SGA’s vice president of programs Ron Migalski, said programs like Safe Passages, are part of their proactive approach.

“We will have well over a dozen staff who are going to be strategically positioned between these elementary schools and ‘hot zones,’if you will, where high crime areas are. So, if we have staff put in place from a proactive standpoint, we can overcome some of these impending crises that can develop” Migalski said.

SGA said it is committed to creating a cradle-to-career pipeline in Roseland. A couple of years ago, it received the only federally awarded Promise Neighborhoods planning grant in the state.

Promise Neighborhoods is a federal program meant to fund community initiatives to keep kids safe and in school. And Migalski said he is hopeful that SGA will be able to continue its work.

The Promise Neighborhood Implementation Grant is approximately $30 million over six years.

“We're optimistic and hopeful. We have the support of nearly the entire community, residents, political leaders at the city, state and federal level. We can clearly justify the need why Roseland over any other,” Migalski explained.

And Dozier said shootings like the one that happened this summer further underscore the need.

“(Her student) was getting off a bus at 114th around, like 9 o’clock at night, 9:30 at night and someone, two people came up to him, tried to rob him, take his cell phone and his wallet. And he started to run away and they started to shoot and they wound up shooting him in his foot. Is that wrong place, wrong time, can kids be out late? I don’t know anymore...I just don’t know,” Dozier trailed off.

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow her @katieobez

Crime around Fenger from Chicago Data Portal

Crime around Fenger High School

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