Could a summer pilot for at-risk teens curb violence even after students return to school?

With huge aspirations to safeguard young people from violence-prone streets, the Summer for Change program counted success in even small, incremental shifts. As summer ends, and students start transitioning back to school next Tuesday, district leaders hope the coaching they invested in will stick. 

For Kayla, the program offered a respite from the stress of her life in West Englewood, and a chance to learn communication and other life skills. 

She was one of 430 young people who last week completed Summer for Change, the inaugural run of an intensive, six-week pilot program geared toward young people at risk of experiencing violence and trauma. Kayla attended group therapy, learned personal skills, and took field trips all over the city. 

Like her classmates, she came from an alternative school that served students who either expelled or otherwise left traditional schools to seek an alternate path to graduation. 

In her previous school, which closed last year, “Everybody don’t want to be nice to you,” said Kayla. “Everybody is not going to mesh the same vibe you have,” prompting a protective toughness she adopted to get through the year. 

But for six weeks this summer, Kayla was able to let some of that protectiveness go. 

Kayla bonded with new friends from different areas of Chicago, an opportunity that the teenager rarely got. 

“I wasn’t opening up all the way, but halfway,” she said last week.  

Related: Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that.

The program, which held a graduation at Chicago State University, targeted alternative school students because in the four years through 2016-17, one-quarter of the 425 Chicago Public Schools students who died had been attending those schools. While only 2% of district enrollment, alternative school students are disproportionately affected by violence in the city, according to a Chicago Reporter investigation.

Summer for Change offered participants a weekly stipend of $200 — Kayla referred to it has her job for the summer — to attend workshops on planning for the future, individual and group therapy and field trips to arcades and other amusements around the city. The program cost $1.4 million. 

“It’s the first time I am aware we have designed a program of this scale for options [alternative school] students,” said Jadine Chou, head of safety and security for the school district. The election of Lori Lightfoot catalyzed plans for the program, she said, as one way to tackle the endemic violence that disproportionately affects people under the age of 21 in Chicago.

The program sought to engage young people and surround them with adults who made them feel welcome and valued, part of a broader effort to stitch together a social safety net for young people in Chicago that the new mayor has promised through efforts like those of Sybil Madison, the city’s new deputy mayor for education and human services

“If you are engaged in these things, you are more inclined to stick with them, and consequently be safe,” Chou said. 

Kayla, who wears her hair in a high ponytail and whose face quickly moves from deadpan to crinkled with laughter, grew up in an area surrounded by violence. She isn’t so sure anything can ward it off.

“I can’t give you no answer why it happens, because I am not the people behind the trigger pulling it,” she said. “But when it happens, it’s tragic. The world we live in, the city we live in, that is what we do.” 

That doesn’t mean the program wasn’t a positive experience, she said. 

“This program helped me develop certain skills that lacked,” said Kayla, “the good part is trips, the fact that we get paid, the bonds we form.” 

In particular, she said, “I learned how to communicate better all around the board.” She learned how to answer the phone, how to talk with her boss and coworkers. 

That’s been helpful in keeping her dad from worrying if she stays out late, checking in on her little sister, or communicating with people at Summer for Change if she is running late or can’t make a session. 

Donte, another participant in the program, said he appreciated learning new ways to cope with stress. “I came up with strategies like listening to music, or talking to somebody I trust,” said Donte, who said he has trouble waking up to get to class on time during the school year. 

Kayla valued the practical lessons, like making a post-graduation plan. Other aspects, like individual and group therapy, not so much.  

Referring to her therapist, a blond woman who was making the rounds of the auditorium on Friday, Kayla said, “Wanting to know how my day is or how I felt yesterday is fine. But wanting to ask about what happened to me when I was little, or wanting to know about my childhood, that is going to make me shut down.”

“That is too much information to give out to somebody,” she said. “Me talking to a stranger about it instead of the person who made me feel that way or do it to me, it’s just another sentence.” 

She would have liked to have gotten more help on her resume, or more access to some of the amenities at the school, like its computer labs. The program, while useful, could not change the circumstances of her reality.

The city and the district are partnering with the University of Chicago Crime Lab to assess the program’s attendance rates and how students do once they return to school, many as seniors. Administrators have already determined that none of their students became victims of gun violence this summer. 

Chou said most students told her they’d like to see the program continue in some form. 

Kayla, who plans to enter the military after graduation, agrees. The program was an exciting respite but, like the rest of the students, she will return to communities that struggle with a lack of jobs and housing and an excess of violence. “Y’all took kids that ain’t had nothing and gave them something,” she said. “It’s a positive thing, but it’s just for the moment.”