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Police work, by necessity, often involves a lot of brief, sudden interactions. A call comes in; officers are dispatched to the scene.
At times it can be all of five minutes.
“We take a report and we leave,” observed Officer Nina Griffith, “and we don’t get to know about personal lives or we don’t get to share things.”
That is what makes the S.T.A.R. Academy program so different, she said. Under the program, Officer Griffith and fellow female officers from the Evanston Police Department drop in at Chute Middle School, 1400 Oakton St., twice a month, to meet with a group of middle-school girl students there in a mentorship arrangement.
“It’s refreshing,” she said. “I mean, we get to have a meal, talk. They ask us questions; we ask them questions. We just get to know each other.”
The Evanston Police Department launched the program Dec. 6, modeling it after the Department’s successful Officer and Gentlemen program, which works with middle-school age boys. The mission of the S.T.A.R. Academy is “to provide young girls with opportunities and the skills needed to succeed in their community and society while promoting self-awareness and empowerment,” the Department said in its initial release.
S.T.A.R. stands for Skills to Achieve Results. The program was developed after a direct request from community members and is being operated as a pilot program in partnership with District 65.
District 65 is very supportive of the program, said Superintendent Dr. Paul Goren.
He said the program offers leadership opportunities for the participating students, giving them the chance “to get to know, work with and be mentored by women on the police force.”
The female officers drew up the curriculum for the program, receiving feedback from District 65 faculty and staff.
Officers Griffith, Enjoli Daley, Francesca Henderson, Tanya Jenkins, and Detective Tosha Wilson and Amanda Wright make up the team.
Ten girls in all participate in the program, Officer Daley said. District 65 makes the selection of the participants. “The only criteria we submit to the school is that the girls be Evanston residents, be in seventh or eighth grade, and display leadership qualities and a willingness to build a positive relationship with other participants and facilitators,” Officer Daley explained.
The officers spent the first few months laying the foundation for the program, focusing on five pillars of achievement: respect, responsibility, self-awareness, leadership and education.
Before tackling those weighty subjects, though, the middle-schoolers, finished with classes for the day, shrug off their backpacks, and share in a warm meal.
“We let them unwind and grab some food,” explained Officer Henderson. “You know kids are always hungry after school.”
The sessions start soon after and cover topics the girls might not encounter in their regular classes: financial literacy, higher education, business ownership and making positive first impressions.
Kicking off the Feb. 8 session, Det. Wilson asked the girls, “What’s our mantra?”
The response from the girls was a little muted.
“Can we do that a little better?” Det. Wilson persisted.
“I am a star and I am here to shine my light,” the girls belted out in unison. “My light recognizes your light, and we will shine our lights together.”
“What are some of our expectations?” asks the officer, continuing.
“Respect one another.”
“Three strikes you’re out – you’re outta here,” suggests a student, drawing out the phrase like a baseball umpire..
“What are the consequences for violence?”
Giggles ripple throughout the room.
For the officers, the sessions can produce their share of raised eyebrows along with smiles of recognition.
“I was at Haven, but I was the same kid 30 years ago,” said Det. Wilson, “where you wanted certain things – where you wanted to feel part of a family.”
At the group’s first meeting, “we told our stories, just so we would have some credibility with the kids. You know we’ve all had our struggles. We dealt with our parents growing up.” Members in the group have dealt with single parenting and domestic abuse, “and we’ve made it,” said Det. Wilson.
For this generation, “we want them to be successful in life and know they can overcome their adversities.”
Tia Young, one of the students in the program, said the program has helped change the way she reacts to certain events. “It makes me take the worst things and not let them ruin my day,” she said.
Some other lessons she has drawn from her officer-mentors include “Be clear in my words. Don’t be afraid to solve problems, and if you need help you can come to us.”
The program works to the benefit of both the students and officers, said Officer Griffith. “We connect with our youth – that way they earn our trust, we earn their trust and we can work together.”
Det. Wright said the program should produce additional dividends as it evolves. After students in the current program graduate, “they’ll be the ones to come back and mentor, along with us, the seventh- and eighth-graders coming up behind them. And we just continue to foster those relationship and leadership skills, so it just will trickle down, from when they are in high school to when they are in college.
“I grew up here in Evanston,” Det. Wright recalled. “A lot of mentors came to our school. We had them at the community centers. I felt like everybody in the community was a mentor, and I’ve been a mentor a long time because of that.”
Beside the classroom sessions, the officers have group outings planned, making a trip recently to the DuSable Museum of African American History, said Officer Daley. She said the group plans to bring in outside speakers for etiquette lessons and lessons on financial literacy. In addition, she said, plans are underway to bring in a self-esteem coach.
“We are genuinely trying to invest in our youth and be an additional resource for them should they need and/or want our help,” she said. “Each of the facilitators brings a tremendous amount of personal and professional experience. A lot of thought and effort has gone into providing the girls with a safe and comfortable space to express themselves while learning and growing.”
The sessions present their share of challenges, but “we all come back because we see the potential in these girls and simply hope to play a small role in their path to greatness,” Officer Daley said. “We all possess a passion for the uplifting and support of women and girls.”