Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Summer youth program deemed a success


With classes back in swing on the South Coast, community leaders working on the issue of youth violence took a look back at a summer program designed to keep teens off the street and out of trouble.
In the months before summer, local leaders had devised a plan to offer individualized support to a group of “at-risk” kids. Ultimately, officials identified 82 local teenagers to participate in the pilot program as leaders continued working on a long-term strategy to draw down gang and youth violence on the South Coast.

“It always felt like a race,” said Fred Razo, the director of Juvenile Court and Community Schools who helped spearhead the summer program.
Nonetheless, officials cobbled together a group of caseworkers who looked over school transcripts, met with each teen and their families, and developed individual plans of support.
“Each family, each young person has specific needs,” Razo said.
Of the 82 tagged for participation, 75 teens received social services, 20 participated in field trips and 10 obtained jobs, he said.
Those who fell between seventh and 12th grade — a total of 52 students — had their academic standing evaluated. Of the 36 who needed summer school, 17 ended up taking classes, Razo said.
Twelve of those became credit compliant, he added, meaning they are now on course to graduate on time.
Those involved in the program also registered two felony arrests and eight misdemeanors during the summer, Razo said, before adding that 40 of the 43 students on probation successfully met the terms and conditions of their probation.
Vince Castro, a mentor with All For One who served as a caseworker during the summer, said beyond the numbers that Razo presented, the relationships he built with his students are key to reversing the tide.
“Relationships are huge,” he said. “If we’re going to accomplish anything, those relationships have to turn into long-term relationships.”
He described how he signed up one teen for a local youth football league and helped him find sponsorships for equipment and registration fees. The teenager, who said frankly he hates football, thanked Castro nonetheless for keeping him off the streets and away from the negative influences in his life.
Gloria Sanchez Arreola, a transitional youth case manager for the County Office of Education, agreed with Castro’s assessment, calling trust a huge factor for teens in the program.
“A lot of our students feel disconnected from the community because they’ve been let down by so many people in the community on so many levels,” she said.
Having the opportunity to work one-on-one with them has been crucial to chipping away at feelings of hopelessness, she added.
Luis Flores participated in the summer program under the watchful eye of his caseworker, Alejandra Gutierrez. He told a group of community leaders yesterday morning that she had kept him busy and out of trouble.
“What she did was very effective because we’re here,” Flores said, adding that she was “straight” with her students. “It’s nice that she does that for us, because where else would we go?”
Nonetheless, the summer program wasn’t without its critics. Castro and Arreola joined Saul Serrano, a program health educator with Los Compadres who also served as a caseworker, in offering suggestions for improving the program.
Organization was a big issue, Arreola said, pressing for a clearer approach to the case-by-case plan. She said a more defined structure and purpose would have been helpful.
Serrano, echoing the call for more structure, said a lack of available staff is another serious issue. The program should be well funded and caseworkers should be employed on a full-time basis, he said.
“Some of [the caseworkers] were taken from other roles to do the work and it can be distracting,” he said.
Despite those issues, the panel of caseworkers said their experience was largely positive and felt the summer program was a success.
“Students who would not have received services got them,” Arreola said. “That in and of itself is a huge success.”
Razo said while the pilot program came to an end with the start of school, there are no plans to drop the 82 youth involved with the program. He said casework will continue as possible and briefs will be sent to school counselors.

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