Saying YES to helping delinquent teens

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For teens to re-enter Chicago Public Schools upon release from Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, a form letter is faxed to their neighborhood school.

Principal Sean Stallings of Manley High School admits that he cringes a bit whenever he sees such a fax coming through.

“In truth, we are not excited,” he says. “We are already juggling a lot of tough tasks and [this fax] means one more will be coming.”

Conceding that these returning students sometimes fall through the cracks, Stallings is embracing a new district initiative designed to transition young people from the juvenile detention center school back into the schools in their neighborhoods.

The initiative, called Youth Engaged In Schools or YES, will also provide Manley and five other participating high schools with resources to address the needs of students whose behavior and academic records indicate they are most at-risk for dropping out and, perhaps, falling into the juvenile justice system. 

Other schools are Crane on the Near West Side, Clemente in West Town, Dyett in Washington Park, Fenger in Roseland and Hirsch in Greater Grand Crossing.

A two-year, $4.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor is picking up the tab for the Youth Engaged in Schools effort, which is one arm of the district’s dropout prevention strategy. (The other part of that strategy involves opening “on-track labs” at six other high schools.)

YES has two major goals: to significantly increase (by as much as two years) participants’ academic performance and to hold schools accountable for retaining the most at-risk students., says Molly Burke, who is overseeing the project for the district.

Each high school will work with their feeder elementary schools to identify 75 8th-graders who are frequently absent from school, getting bad grades or acting out, Burke explains. Another 50 students will be added to each high school’s program as freshman year is underway and behavior and attendance issues become apparent.

Burke says a majority of students in the juvenile detention center are over-age freshmen, which points to the fact that failure in school often coincides with getting in trouble with the law. “The first thing we want to do is prevention,” Burke adds.

As they begin freshman year, students in the program—they’re called YES Scholars—will spend extra time after school working on developing social, emotional and study skills that will help them succeed in high school. The program will be led by teachers who have shown success in working with at-risk students. The curriculum is from John Hopkins University’s Talent Development model. A select group of 25 or so will also work with a student advocate, who will create personal learning plans for each of them.

Outside of participating high schools, a special team of case managers at the Juvenile Detention Center will work with some 200 teenagers (in any grade) who live within the attendance areas of the YES schools. Some of these students, upon their release, may enroll in alternative schools. Big neighborhood high schools may not be the right place for them, Burke comments.

Advocates and school administrators say focusing attention on students coming out of the detention center is long overdue.

For one, the school and juvenile court systems don’t communicate, says Edith Crigler of the Chicago Area Project, a social service organization with a focus on preventing delinquency. Crigler notes that many students inside the detention center have diagnosed mental health and special education issues. Sometimes evaluations are done, but often that information is never passed on.

“There’s no continuity,” she says. “These [students] are seen as the screw ups. They cycle in and out of the two systems.”

Often, there’s no immediate follow-up, and it can take days, sometimes weeks, for probation officers to learn that a teen never showed up at school. 

Some teens need time and therapy before going back to school, but it rarely happens, Crigler points out.

“I had one principal call me about a 7th-grader who spent 10 days in the juvenile detention center for retail theft,” she says. “The student was a big kid but was not a problem before this happened. After it happened, the child was acting out and couldn’t seem to focus.

“This principal wanted to know what kind of resources there were to get him some help. The answer is, there are none.”

‘It is hard for them’

The lack of effort or forethought about how a young person makes the transition from detention to school makes it difficult for both sides, says Manley’s Stallings.

These teenagers are often more focused on survival than on education, he says.

“It is hard for them to come into an environment where other kids are dealing with boyfriend-girlfriend issues when they are dealing with a whole different set of issues,” he says.

Janice Wells, Manley’s assistant principal, adds that the students come in at all academic levels. Some have never set foot in high school, while others were enrolled at Manley before winding up in the detention center. It takes a while to get a handle on their needs, she says.

Another challenge is motivating students who are only attending school because their probation officer is forcing them to, Wells says.

Case managers hope to stoke motivation by finding the right schools for former juvenile inmates, providing counseling and making sure that schools get information on the teens’ mental health and learning issues. They will also teach workforce skills, such as resume writing.

“A lot of these kids have a problem seeing a path and vision for their future,” Burke says.

Call Sarah Karp at (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to karp@catalyst-chicago.org.