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For Chicago Schools Focused On Emotional Support, Help Goes A Long Way

Most Chicago public schools need extra social work support to meet students’ emotional needs. Outside groups try to fill that void.

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tenacity award winner

Roselyn Ventura won the Tenacity Award at her Chicago public school for changes she made in her behavior with help from Communities In Schools of Chicago. From left to right: Saucedo teacher Tara Burns; Communities In Schools student services manager Juanita Herrera; Roselyn Ventura; Roselyn’s mother Rosa Ventura; Saucedo Principal Virginia Hiltz.

Sarah Karp

Roselyn Ventura recently graduated eighth grade from Saucedo Academy in Little Village with the Tenacity Award.

A year ago, no one could have imagined it. At the time. she had cemented her reputation as a fighter and a student who spent too much time in the principal’s office.“We were the mean girls,” she said. “We would make fun of people.”

Roselyn also was struggling at home, where her mother said she would often lash out or keep to herself.

Saucedo’s principal Virginia Hiltz said she immediately thought of Roselyn when she brought in an organization called Communities In Schools of Chicago to give students extra emotional support. Hiltz said the school of almost 1,000 students had a full-time social worker last year, but that social worker primarily tends to the needs of special education students. That leaves little to no time for students like Roselyn.

By the school district’s own admission, most schools could use extra social worker support. The school district currently has about 346 social workers for 361,000 students, or about 1 social worker for 1,000 students. The National Association of Social Workers calls for a ratio of 250 students to 1 social worker.

Last year, the school district announced it would hire 160 more social workers. But it was announced late for hiring purposes, and the school district ultimately was only able to hire 40.

The school district has yet to roll out its spending plan for next school year, leaving its plan to hire additional social workers unclear.

More than academics

Communities In Schools brings a variety of programs such as vision testing and drama class into about 160 schools, but provides more intensive support to 20, including Saucedo. These schools get a student support manager who provides direct counseling or tutoring to 50 students and also brings in outside organizations to serve the entire student body.

The organization gives Carnahan Family Tenacity Awards to students to showcase a young person’s transformation and to illustrate the difference extra support can make. The award is named after one of the organization’s longtime board members.

Student support managers are provided to schools deemed in need, based on the community where the school is located and student outcomes, and ones where principals are focused on meeting the emotional needs of students, said Bartholomew St. John, chief communications officer for Communities In Schools of Chicago.

Saucedo Academy Principal Virginia Hiltz said the school’s vision centers around not just academics, but also emotional supports and extracurricular activities.

“Both research and humanity shows that if students feel safe and supported then they are going to be even better at reading and math, and they will be more engaged in school,” Hiltz said. “They are going to be better at their academics because they feel good about who they are, who they want to be and why they are here.”

Hiltz started working with Roselyn and her mother Rosa Ventura last year, but knew that more intensive help was needed. When Juanita Herrera, the new student support manager, came on board in September, she put Roselyn at the front of the line.

“She has changed leaps and bounds”

Roselyn was resistant at first, but recognized she didn’t feel good about her behavior. She eventually began to open up to help.

Herrera arranged for weekly therapy with an outside organization and also met with her regularly. Herrera said she had Roselyn set goals and then tried to help her reach them.

One main goal was to improve her communication skills so her first reaction wasn’t to fight when confronted with something she didn’t like. Another was to improve her relationship with her mother.

“I realized that some people were getting hurt [because] of my actions, and I didn’t want them to feel that way,” Roselyn said. “I was hurting my mom because she would always complain about how I would always be mean to her, and I felt like she was telling me she didn’t feel as if I loved her. So that made me change a lot too.”

In addition to talking about these issues in therapy, Roselyn in wrote journals and expressed herself through art and cosmetology. She said she came to see that a lot of anger, sadness and confusion was the result of her father leaving her family when she was young.

She also started coming out of her shell, joining clubs where she felt safe and had fun.

All these things made her enjoy school more. Her teacher, Tara Burns, said Roselyn’s attendance improved and, when she was in school, she began spending more time in class, rather than in the principal’s office. What really shined through was Roselyn’s kind heart.

“She has changed leaps and bounds,” Burns said.

Roselyn’s mother, Rosa, said she thinks what her daughter now feels good about herself.

“She was one those types of girls that would say, ‘You are just telling me I am beautiful because you are my mom,’” Rosa said. “But she really is overall very beautiful, and I wanted her to see that.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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