City, Unit 4 launch ‘a place of respite’ for Black students and families

The awaited LIFT Champaign program, aimed at providing targeted care for Black students and their families at Unit 4 schools, is taking flight.

Since LIFT was approved by the Champaign council in April, the city and school district have added the program’s licensed social worker director, three “family empowerment champions,” a family-parent liaison, office manager and a dedicated facility — the former Novak Academy Building at 815 Randolph St.

Now, more than 20 families have been engaging with LIFT staff in the last month, with more on the way.

“Today, we affirm that Champaign wants our youth and families to do more than survive,” said Amy Armstrong, board president of the Unit 4 school district. “We want them to be elevated, to be safe, and to thrive.”

LIFT stands for Leading Individuals and Families to Transformation, echoing the Black National Anthem: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Corey Robinson Jr., a sophomore at Centennial High School, performed the song at the program’s official launch on Thursday.

Program enrollment focuses on students and their families, primarily Black, who are facing severe challenges in and out of the classroom.

Families are eligible for the program if they’re food insecure or under the poverty line, with a student who has 10 or more discipline referrals, 10 or absences and three or more suspensions.

In the spring, the city and district reported that 78 students across 67 families in the district were eligible for the LIFT program.

Directing the LIFT program is Katina Wilcher, who previously led student, family and community engagement for Unit 4 Schools, after her 18-year stint as a social worker in the district.

“I’m a licensed clinical social worker, so this is my passion, this is my life’s work,” Wilcher said. “Now’s an opportunity to do it on a different level to effect change for our families.”

Wilcher and her staff use a few key phrases to communicate what makes LIFT unique.

For one, its “wraparound.” The program aims to assist district families as much as their students, with after-school engagement, tutoring parenting workshops, mental-health services and more.

And the care is “trauma-informed,” they said. Families can use a crisis hotline for emergent concerns in the home.

“It’s about being thoughtful of identifying the strengths and needs of our families, and being able to meet them where they’re at,” Wilcher said. “We’re providing services geared toward helping them and supporting them through their traumas, and healing them through their traumas, and being able to manage different crisis events and situations that arise.”

Family empowerment champions confer with 10 families each.

“What we’ve found so far is that no two families have the same needs, but in terms of trends, all of our families are interested in some level of upward mobility — whether it’s academically, employment-wise, behaviorally — all of our families have identified a need and desire to grow,” she said.

A team of researchers from the UI College of Education’s Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment will craft data metrics to measure the program’s success.

“We’re still in that defining process,” said CREA investigator Anthony Sullers.

“Our plans are to conduct a program needs-assessment to all stakeholders across the board, we want to see what success looks like from all levels, more specifically what that looks like for the students and their families.”

CREA evaluators haven’t met with the families yet, but the data collection might start with their traditional methods: one-on-one interviews, focus groups and observing the programs, Sullers said.

“Right now, to me, the best metrics will be making sure the students are receiving the services that they said that they need, that’ll be the true stepping stone,” he said. “We know it’s going to take some time to figure that out.”

The city has been trying to get LIFT off the ground since the summer of 2018, seeking a “culturally responsive crisis intervention program” for Black youth in the area.

In a report issued last spring, Champaign illustrated an in-district achievement gap — lower college readiness scores, more suspensions and a 71 percent graduation rate for African American students during the 2018-19 school year, compared to an 89 percent rate for White students, and 82 percent across all Unit 4 high schools.

“Though racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps often go hand in hand, the extreme racial achievement gap in Unit 4 is not explained by socioeconomic status; achievement levels among black students in Unit 4 are low regardless of free and reduced lunch (FRL) eligibility,” the report said.

The facility has classroom and tutoring spaces, a cafeteria, a “kickback room” for kids and dedicated space for mental health counseling, among others.

“We’re excited for young people to have a place of respite, where they can come after a long day of school, and some things they’ve had to deal with, a place for them to connect and unwind,” said Verdell Jones, a family empowerment champion.

The program’s budget sits at $594,000, with $250,000 coming from the city. The UI’s Office of Public Engagement is chipping in financial support and helping assess the program as well.

“As we’re putting the resources and services in place, our hope is that we’ll begin to see goals being reached, fewer crises, and more growth and stability over time,” Wilcher said.

via The News-Gazette

November 5, 2021 at 04:19PM

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