‘Working On Womanhood’ Program For Chicago Teens Showing Results

WOW program
Counselor Kenya Hawkins, left, runs Working on Womanhood, or WOW, sessions for young women at Dunbar High School in Chicago. (Photo by Sarah Karp / WBEZ)
WOW program
Counselor Kenya Hawkins, left, runs Working on Womanhood, or WOW, sessions for young women at Dunbar High School in Chicago. (Photo by Sarah Karp / WBEZ)

‘Working On Womanhood’ Program For Chicago Teens Showing Results

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A program focused on the emotional well-being of teenage girls in Chicago is improving the girls’ school attendance and reducing suspensions.

The evaluation of Working on Womanhood, or WOW, looked at academic data from Chicago Public Schools and surveys of the participants and their school staff. Youth Guidance, a social service agency that runs WOW, worked with researchers from Lurie Children’s Hospital and Northwestern University on the evaluation.

WOW follows in the footsteps of Becoming a Man, or BAM, a similar Youth Guidance program designed for boys. BAM became a centerpiece of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s violence prevention strategy after a University of Chicago study found participants were less likely to commit crimes while involved.

“Schools were getting BAM and they started saying ‘what about our girls?’” said Ngozi Harris, the WOW training manager.

With the promising evaluation in hand, Youth Guidance is looking to expand WOW. It is in 41 schools, but eventually the organization would like to see it in the 100 schools that offer BAM. WOW and BAM are funded through private donations and city and federal grants.

Virtually all participants in WOW have experienced significant trauma, and more than two-thirds reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or problems regulating their emotions.

Like with the city’s teenage boys, Harris said the girls need to figure out how to deal with trauma in constructive ways. She said too often people think that young women are getting help when they are not.

“They are just assumed to be okay, that they can handle whatever,” Harris said. “Just the simple asking them, ‘how are you doing? What are the highs and lows of your day?’ It is key to helping them.”

The agenda for WOW group sessions is similar to what happens with BAM. It starts with a check in. Then, the students have group discussion around a predetermined subject. The sessions also feature an activity designed to make the program feel less like therapy, which can carry stigma.

Harris said young women focus on goal setting and self-reliance.

Last week, at a WOW session at Dunbar High School on the city’s Near South Side, counselor Kenya Hawkins started with the check in. One young woman said her high for the week was buying a ticket to a concert for a Korean boy band she likes. Another said her low was the stress of preparing for a culinary competition. A third young woman said she had no highs and didn’t want to talk about her low.

Then, Hawkins led a discussion about self care. Some of the ways the young women said they tend to themselves is by taking long baths, listening to music and looking good.

Hawkins told them to keep in mind that is it never selfish to care for themselves and that they should remember this as they head off to college.

The session ended with the young women making stress balls by putting rice in baby socks. Also, they wrote affirmation note cards they could keep for themselves or give to someone else.

A key part of WOW is placing a counselor in each school four days a week. These counselors are available in a way traditional school counselors, who have many other duties, can’t be.

One girl said she recently went to Hawkins after finding herself in a situation she didn’t know how to handle. The girl didn’t want to go into details, but she said she valued Hawkins’ advice to confront the situation head on.

“Somewhere you can come and get things off your mind and you can have peace, protecting your energy,” said the girl, who asked not to be named. “That is what makes you a good person when you have good positive characteristics.”

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