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Business Group Defunds CPS Anti-Violence Efforts To Fight On Another Front

An anti-violence push bankrolled by some of Chicago’s most prominent business leaders and backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pulling all funding out of Chicago Public Schools to focus instead on community-based violence reduction efforts.

The schools, located in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, are now confronting the reality of starting the school year without programs they say reduced tensions and prevented violence. One school, Robeson High School in Englewood, lost funding that staff say had reduced suspensions and police referrals.

The cuts to schools by the business group Get IN Chicago — which total in the millions — come as the district plans to merge students from Robeson and three other high schools across historic gang lines into one school. It’s a consolidation that some have warned could spark violence. The first public meeting on the proposed South Side high school merger is Wednesday evening.

Get IN Chicago, which raised $41 million from Chicago’s business community and wealthy individuals in 2013 and has distributed $34 million so far, says it will now focus exclusively on reaching “acutely high-risk youth,” or young people out of school and not working — kids who experts say are the most likely to pick up a gun or be victims of violence themselves.  

A sign in Robeson High School’s peace room on Chicago’s South Side. Staffing for the peace room and other anti-violence efforts were cut after a group funded by the business community shifted focus to youth who are no longer in school. The cuts come as CPS prepares for a planned 2019 merger of Robeson and three other Englewood schools. (Linda Lutton/WBEZ)

“It’s not any sort of disregard or lack of value for schools. It’s about understanding who the constituent is and finding them where they are,” said Toni Irving, the executive director of Get IN Chicago. Irving said many high-risk kids have had run-ins with law enforcement, live in deep poverty, and some have been abused or neglected. And they’re frequently absent from school and move often, making school-based programs a challenge, she said.

Shifting to programs only in community settings, Irving says, will allow for “non-stop engagement” because interventions can continue when the school year ends.

Get IN Chicago has faced criticism in the past. It gave out just $4 million in grants during its first two years and spent $900,000 on administrative costs. Meanwhile, gun violence in the city has skyrocketed.

The group joins an increasing number of anti-violence efforts in the city that are focusing on so-called “disconnected” or “opportunity youth.” But some question whether that’s happening at the expense of school-based anti-violence work.

Successful anti-violence strategies scrapped ahead of controversial high school merger

Robeson Principal Melanie Beatty-Sevier said Get IN Chicago funding at her school was making a difference. At Robeson, the group’s support helped pay for a peace room where students could talk through problems and learn to solve conflicts.  

“Students might come here if they’re upset about something, to de-escalate or process verbally about what’s going on,” said Michael Meyer on his last day at the school in June. For three years he coordinated the peace room and taught Robeson teachers to employ new classroom management and discussion techniques in their instruction.

Michael Meyer works for the social service agency Alternatives, Inc., and worked for three years as Robeson High School’s peace 'guru,' teaching students to resolve conflicts through discussion. (Linda Lutton/WBEZ)

Robeson’s peace room was run by Alternatives, Inc., which was among a dozen groups funded by Get IN Chicago to provide mentoring and psychotherapy in struggling high schools in the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods.

Before Alternatives arrived, Beatty-Sevier says “kids would have fights, and it would just continue to brew.” Now, she says, students break up fights and even suggest going to the peace room on their own when conflicts emerge. In a report, Alternatives cites progress made at Robeson, such as a 70 percent decrease in out-of-school suspensions and a 93 percent reduction in police notifications.

But next year, Meyer won’t be here, and similar programming is being eliminated at four other high schools, including Team Englewood, another one of the four Englewood schools slated to merge in fall 2019. As a result of Get IN Chicago’s change in focus, the programs were all dropped after the third year of what schools were told was a five-year grant.

Beatty-Sevier said students should continue to be trained in resolving conflict in the lead-up to the merger.

“It’s absolutely important,” she said. “I think it should be a part of the merger.”

Her dean of students will be moving his desk into the peace room — but that’s not the same as having a restorative justice “guru” on staff, Beatty-Sevier said.

Staffing for this peace room at Robeson High School was funded by Get IN Chicago, which supported similar efforts at five struggling Chicago high schools. The programs have been defunded as Get IN Chicago shifts its anti-violence focus to out-of-school youth. (Linda Lutton/WBEZ

Chicago’s vaunted “Becoming a Man” program, offered by the non-profit Youth Guidance, will also see cuts due to Get IN Chicago’s focus away from schools. The program operates in schools in the city’s most violent neighborhoods. Research shows that the program has reduced violent crime arrests by 50 percent and increased boys’ connection to school and graduation rates. About 150 fewer student will be served as a result of Get IN Chicago cuts.

Chicago Public Schools did not make Jadine Chou, its chief of safety and security, available to comment on the loss of funding from Get IN Chicago. A district spokesman said CPS has increased funding for social and emotional learning over the last five years despite budget difficulties, and schools losing Get IN Chicago’s support will be prioritized in anti-violence efforts. But there are no plans to fully make up for the programming lost by Get IN Chicago’s shift away from school-based programming.

Regarding the merger of the four Englewood high schools, Chou said earlier this summer that the district is bringing students from the affected schools together through summer jobs programs and after-school activities, which she hopes will build bridges among students and make for a smooth merger.

'This city is in a place where it needs both'

Roseanna Ander, director at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, says little is known about which strategies actually reduce violence. But programs for disconnected youth can’t come at the expense of school programs, she said.

Many youth targeted by school-based anti-violence programs have a very tenuous relationship to school, she said, and “really need effective programming to help them make it through.”

Many of the community groups who had received funding from Get IN Chicago to work in schools will stay funded, but now will be focusing on students outside school walls.

Torrey Barrett is the founder and president of Keep Loving Each Other, or KLEO, a church-affiliated group in Washington Park on the South Side. He said his group is grateful for the ongoing funding, but he called KLEO’s school-based work “extremely important. At least from KLEO’s standpoint, we are looking to go back in the schools.”

Get IN Chicago had funded KLEO to work in Hirsch High School in South Shore for three years. Mentors made home visits, connected parents to services, provided homework help, and generally acted like big sisters or big brothers. Contracted to serve 100 students at Hirsch, Barrett said KLEO actually served even more.

Now, he said KLEO has been in contact with just 25 of the 64 young people Get IN Chicago has contracted them to help. He said summer jobs are a lure, but “this population is a challenge,” with many of the young people not living at the addresses given to the community organizations.

“Schools are very important, because if you don’t provide the services to those students that are at risk of dropping out, then they will drop out. So you have to do both,” Barrett said.  “This city is in a place where it needs both — it needs community-based intensive mentoring, and it needs school-based intensive mentoring.”

Linda Lutton reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.

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