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On a typical school day, the Youth Organizations Umbrella (YOU) provides three hours of after-school activities and supports to hundreds of students. After a snack, students spend an hour on academic time, then shift to enrichment activities. During the session, some students spend time with a mentor. Some receive counseling services. YOU also attempts to empower parents.
In many ways, YOU’s program is the backbone of what is called a “community school.”
In the 2012-13 school year, YOU served more than 700 students in its after-school programs, who typically participate three days a week. YOU has operated the programs at Nichols and Chute middle schools since the 1990s, and expanded to Oakton and Washington elementary schools in 2003. Recently, the program expanded to Dawes, King Lab Magnet School and to Lincoln Junior High in Skokie.
YOU also operates a program at Evanston Township High School.
“The core idea of YOU is that all kids deserve high quality out-of-school experiences,” Executive Director Seth Green told the RoundTable. “In our community, families come from very different means. Fortunately some families have the opportunity to provide their kids with out-of-school activities through their own pockets. Other families have the same aspiration for their kids, but they don’t have the same resources to support their kids in high quality out-of-school experiences. Our role is to support those families and provide their kids with all the out-of-school experiences that will propel them to success.”
What makes YOU’s program different from many others is its holistic approach.
“We wrap around the child in a way that is very aligned with what the school is trying to do and that is very focused on supporting the parent in the important work they have to do with their child,” said Mr. Green.
“Our greatest partner in all this is the schools,” he said. District 65 administrators and principals provide ideas on how to set up the program; teachers at the schools keep YOU staff apprised about what students are learning in the classrooms; and District 65 makes its schools available for the program.
“We have an open door to everyone,” said Mr. Green. “At the same time we are very careful to really try to target kids who may greatly benefit from this experience and who have huge potential that might not otherwise be realized.”
YOU collaborates with the schools. Typically a social worker at the schools will ask parents if it is okay for the school to share information with YOU and okay for YOU to reach out to them. “Our preference,” said Mr. Green, “is for us to be eagerly offering the opportunity rather than for parents to just get a card and be told this is another resource.”
Students are also referred by other agencies, such as the YMCA, Family Focus and the Local Area Network (LAN), and by parents who have kids in the program.
About 92% of the students in YOU’s program are from low-income households, as measured by those who receive free or reduced-fee lunches at the schools. About 65% are African American and 25% Latino.
YOU is making a concentrated effort to reach out to Latino households, said Mr. Green. Next year, YOU will have a Spanish-speaking program at each school community it serves.
The academic time is “time to do homework, but it’s also a time to sharpen reading skills and do independent reading or to do worksheets or activities to boost mathematic skills,” said Janese Johnson, co-leader of YOU’s after-school program at Chute.
“What’s been a big help this year,” she added is, “some teachers send us the homework assignments every day,” so YOU staff know what the assignments are. “We also have a physical presence in the school, going to the same team meetings and curriculum meetings as the teachers go to during the school day. … In that way we can hear and see what’s going on curriculum-wise in the school. Teachers and school staff also have an opportunity to tell us about things they’re seeing that would be helpful to us or give us tips to help the kids in their learning.”
In addition to providing tutors during academic time, YOU is able to make other resources available and instill habits for good learning.
“This past school year, one of the huge ways I saw it helping kids was we had access to the computer lab after school,” said Kathy Graves, YOU’s site coordinator at Nichols. “Our youth who did not have computer access at home to complete papers or essays or other homework assignments were able to use that time and use it well.”
She added, “It also gives them a really structured and sometimes quiet space or time to concentrate and also get them the help that they might not be able to get at home for various reasons.”
Angelo Cross, YOU’s site coordinator at Oakton Elementary School, commented on developing good study habits. He said, “We teach kids about organization, responsibility and what their role is in their education … We try to teach them why it’s important to do quality homework and why it’s important to give a good effort so you get the most out of it.
There is a ratio of about one tutor or helper for seven students, said Mr. Green. Many tutors are on staff at YOU, but almost 100 are students at Northwestern, DePaul or Loyola universities who typically spend 10 hours a week on the program. The college students are generally in a work-study program funded through their respective schools.
The second portion of the after-school program provides a wide-range of “social and emotional enrichment activities,” such as sports, art, dance, music, poetry writing, photography, videography, theatre, science, cooking and life-skills workshops.
“Our belief is that the activities are actually the most important time,” Mr. Green said. “At our core we’re a social and emotional agency. … This is where we feel youth development happens.” Students select from a list of four to five activities to participate in on a particular day of the week for eight weeks.
“It’s just a way to have the kids enjoy things they like or to expose them to things that they don’t know about or would not otherwise be able to do outside of YOU,” said Ms. Johnson. “We want the kids to have fun, but even in enrichment time, they’re still learning. We try to be very intentional in everything we do.”
As an example, she said if the activity is cooking, “the students are making a food product, but they’re still learning about math and fraction conversion or they’re learning about patience and problem-solving. The kids see it as a way to have fun and do some cool things, but it’s really a part of continued learning and learning in a different way.”
Ms. Graves said, “We try to take the things they’re interested in and turn it into something they can build on.” Some kids were interested in building things, so “we formed an architecture club. We told the kids what being an architect entails, and how you can turn that into a career. We also gave them some tangible things to do, like building a picnic table and a bench.”
Mr. Cross said YOU partnered with the Fleetwood Jourdain Theatre Group to offer enrichment in radio broadcasting, a program funded by a 21st Century grant through District 65. “We had a lot of kids who were very shy, soft-spoken,” he said. “The program taught kids the power of speaking, communication and being able to create your own voice. The kids developed confidence to talk, and to present in front of groups of people.
“We had a couple of parents come in and say their child had a complete transformation – where their child became very vocal and outspoken,” Mr. Cross added.
Other community organizations often partner in providing enrichment activities. For example, staff at the Open Studio Project may come to a school and work with kids on an art project. Kids may go to the YMCA to learn to swim; Literature for All of Us leads book discussions; Northwestern University provides its STEM curriculum called FUSE in which kids build robots; the YWCA offers its building healthy relationships curriculum.
“If there’s a resource in the community, we try to get our kids connected to it,” said Mr. Green. “And most of these agencies are doing this for free. Because of their own missions, they want to serve a broad group of kids. A huge part of our role is just connecting kids.”
YOU matches up approximately 50 children in the after-school program with a mentor, who provides individualized support for a student who is at risk of failing in school, delinquency or violence.
Initially, mentoring takes place on the same site as the after-school program for an hour each week. After the student and mentor are comfortable with each other, they may go to cultural, sports or other events.
“The mentorship program is extremely integrated with the after school program,” said Mr. Green. “The mentors check in with staff and share information with the case management team.”
“It’s often very difficult for our middle-school youth to feel connected to adults that they trust and feel are looking out for their best interest,” said Ms. Graves.
“What I’ve seen in the mentorship pairs is that the youth go from being kind of nervous or self-conscious around adults to being more willing to speak up knowing they have somebody who has their back and is looking out for them,” she added.
“Parental engagement is a huge part of what we do,” said Mr. Green. “One of the principles we live by is that ‘knowledge is in the room.’ We have extraordinary parents. Our goal is to really elevate the voices of great parents that we have and create fabulous peer-learning exchanges.”
YOU staff have one-on-one meetings with parents during the intake process, and then maintain regular contact with parents through progress reports, phone calls and home visits. The first call is to say something positive about their child.
“From the beginning we let parents know it’s not just our relationship with parenting your child,” said Ms. Johnson. “It’s a relationship with us and your child and the family and the school. We’re all in this together. It’s not like, ‘give us your child and we’ll take care of him or her for two or three hours.’ It’s ‘give us your child and we’ll work with you to make your child successful.’”
YOU also hosts Family Nights about once a month which are “typically learning experiences,” said Mr. Green. “The parents are learning from each other.”
Mr. Green gave an example that at one Family Night, parents watched a documentary about bullying, and a discussion was then led by two parents. One parent in the group said if his child was bullied, he would say ‘stand up and fight for yourself.’ One parent leading the discussion responded, “You don’t want to do that because your child would then be the aggressor.” He suggested the child assert himself with his voice and tell school authorities.
“My sense,” Mr. Green said, “is if that was said from the mouth of one of our staff or from the mouth of an ‘expert,’ it would have felt very different than hearing it from the parent they see as their peer.”
Mr. Cross said YOU piloted an additional way to reach out to parents through “grades and goals” meetings at Oakton this year. YOU parents were invited to meet with YOU staff after they had their parent/teacher conference and “to create an action plan for the students.” He said, “We came up with a strategy to help support the students throughout the year, consistent with what the schools were trying to do.”
It is another way to reach out to parents and connecting YOU’s work the schools, Ms. Cross said.
Another piece of the program is provided through YOU’s social workers and counselors.
“We recognize our kids are only successful if we work with our families in things that they might need,” said Ms. Johnson. “Many parents do take us up on our clinical services if a family or individual youth needs that tool. We’re meeting the kid where they are. We’re also meeting the family where they are.”
“About 10% of the kids are getting counseling from us,” said Mr. Green. “We have family meetings as well.” He added while most counseling is with the child, “We also have some home visits to facilitate important conversations with the family.”
Mr. Green said 71 percent of the students who both participated in YOU’s after-school program and had a mentor last year increased their grade-point average in school, and 91 percent increased their social skills according to pre- and post-evaluations. About 70 percent of YOU parents participated in Family Nights and other activities.
“What really makes our program unique is the approach we take,” said Ms. Graves, the site coordinator at Nichols. “We look at the whole child and don’t say we’re just an after-school program and we’re going to do homework with students. We find ways to engage them across the board so we are still giving them the academic push, but we’re really meeting their needs socially and emotionally and being a great support system.”
Between sixth and eighth grade, “you see such a remarkable change in their demeanor and their attitudes toward school and toward adults in school,” she added. “We give them a very different perspective on how to engage with adults and really try to prepare them to advocate for themselves.”
“What sets us apart is that we really do reach and strive for the total package of what a kid is,” said Ms. Johnson, co-leader at Chute. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
She said the after-school program teaches kids to be confident they can succeed and to manage their emotions and develop problem-solving skills. “We work with the kids on how to channel things correctly and positively so if they have a negative interaction they don’t explode, but can calmly walk away from a situation or clearly communicate their needs in a way that’s beneficial,” said Ms. Johnson.
Mr. Cross, site coordinator at Oakton, said the major change he sees in kids is the kids becoming invested in the schools and the parents becoming invested in their child’s education.
“We’re very much about academics,” he said, “but we’re also trying to figure out things outside of academics, such as emotional well-being. If there’s things going on at home that are affecting their being able to come to school and give their best every day, we kind of investigate that so we can provide resources, whether it’s mentors or clinical counseling support services.
“It’s kind of like equalizing the playing field for families and students so they can do their best at school,” Mr. Cross continued. “Not everybody is able to come to school and focus solely on education. There’s so many things that affect each and every student. Our job is to be able to provide the resources or the know-how or at least the supports so they can do the best job at school.”
School District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “The reason YOU has a good after-school program is because of their leadership and because of the vision of their board and their staff in creating a scope of activities and experiences that enliven the life experiences of students and also serves their school experience.”
In June, United Way of Metropolitan Chicago presented YOU with the Education Impact Award, one of three awards given at United Way’s annual community celebration. YOU was selected for its work as a regional leader in connecting youth and families to the highest quality, most comprehensive out-of-school support through its programming.¡