Chicago tries to save anti-violence programs

With deficit looming, $17M mentoring effort may be re-tooled.

June 10, 2011

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Chicago's schools chief and top cop meet with students about the district's $42M anti-violence initiative.

Chicago is trying to preserve a set of anti-violence programs in schools that have attracted national attention. On Thursday, the city’s new police superintendent and schools CEO heard first-hand how violence— and schools’ efforts to combat it—are impacting students’ lives.

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and police chief Garry McCarthy sat in a circle with a dozen students at Manley Career Academy High School on the West Side. When Brizard asked if they’ve ever known anyone who’s been killed, every hand went up. 

Kaylah Morris’s cousin was murdered when she was nine.

KAYLAH: He was shot in his head in his car. It scared me. Because he was so close to my dad, it made me think ‘What would happen if my dad wasn’t here?’

BRIZARD: When you listen to those kinds of stories, it gives you a real appreciation of what we have to do as a community to begin to address the needs of our kids.

All the students Brizard and McCarthy met with have been touched this year by the district’s anti-violence programs.

Kids have gone through mentoring, they’ve met with social workers and trauma experts.

Freshman Aaron Wesley, who told Brizard and McCarthy he’s been involved in a gang, talked to special counselors at Manley after he was beat up a few months ago.

AARON:  They really actually cared. And they told me the straight truth. They told me: ‘Aaron, that ain’t you. That don’t seem like what you would be into.’ And that made me think: that’s NOT me.

It’s all part of a $42 million a year initiative paid for by stimulus funds that are now gone.

Brizard says even with the district’s daunting deficit, keeping the antiviolence programs is a priority.

Mark Jordan, head of security at Manley, says those programs have made his school a calmer place this year. He highlights a focused effort to teach kids to resolve conflict without fighting.

JORDAN: I’m sure our fighting is down almost 70, 75 percent. In the school and outside. It has quelled a lot—the fact that they can talk their problems out now, as opposed to having to fight.

CPS says it will find the $16.6 million needed to keep Culture of Calm programs like that one. And the $8.4 million Safe Passage program, which puts community members on the streets to protect kids on their way to and from school, will also be funded.

But parts of the district’s anti-violence initiative are extremely costly—the signature program, started by former CEO Ron Huberman, sought to identify the students most at risk of being shot. The district assigned them mentors who were available day or night. They spend up to 20 hours a week with kids, find them jobs, help their families get the lights turned back on.

But it cost $10 million to do that for just 400 kids. That’s $25,000 a child.

CPS says it’s asking the Youth Advocate Program to figure out how to lower costs. David Williams is director there:

WILLLIAMS:  They talk about programs in terms of value. I value these kids. I value that if they graduate and go on to college, they won’t end up in prison, they won’t end up dying in the street.  If they get opportunities and employment, if we support their families. I believe in that.

In total, the district spent $17 million this school year on mentoring programs. Nineteen community and youth organizations around Chicago do that work in addition to Youth Advocate Porgrams, Inc.

Back at Manley, Aaron says he’s in touch with his mentor—who’s from a different program—every day.

AARON: I can text him and call him and talk to him about anything—or we can sit down over a meal and talk about anything. He gives me a feeling that I can trust him. He’s somebody that I don’t look for that’s just gonna walk out.

CPS says it doesn’t want to walk out on kids like Aaron, and promises to keep serving the same number of students with mentors.

McCarthy says maybe the police can help.

MCCARTHY: You know, listening to these kids talk about mentoring—having them recognize just exactly how important it is—it’s very powerful.

And Brizard says he may look to churches or even CPS employees to help out.

BRIZARD: We have 40,000 employees. So how do we begin to leverage them better? Even if we can get one adult to work with ten kids over the course of a year. Even if it’s voluntary.

The district says its anti-violence efforts have netted a 4 percent improvement in attendance, and notes 9 fewer CPS students were killed this year.

Chicago drew national media attention for its efforts when the anti-violence initiative was first announced, and as it began to roll out in the wake of Derrion Albert's beating death.

But there’s been no outside evaluation of the initiative—reporters, for instance, have been allowed only limited access to schools, students, and mentors.

An impact study by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab was put on hold.  Researchers weren’t able to design a study that could confidently measure how much the program helped kids.

They hope to evaluate it next school year.