The trauma-informed program is expanding with a $7.5 million investment by the city’s school district.
February 8, 2022Published by Next City; excerpt below
Last fall, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would spend $7.5 million to expand a trauma-informed program for teens that connects them with weekly therapy and dedicated mentors.
The program — called Choose to Change — is recruiting 1,000 students and new community-based partners to meaningfully integrate its model with the public school system. CPS is rethinking school safety and partnering with community organizations to build out alternative safety options in response to student-led demand for police-free schools.
Generous Partners Support Students Across Chicago Neighborhoods
CHICAGO – Chicago Public Schools and Children First Fund (CFF) surprised students across the District this week with coats, gifts, and fun-filled events to celebrate the holiday season in school communities. Students shared their wish lists in letters to `CPS Santas,’ and Santa – with a little help from generous partners across Chicago – delivered.
From Pop-It fidget toys to LOL dolls, remote control cars to writing desks, thousands of hand-selected personalized gifts went home with students. Many students received gift cards, warm winter coats, hats, gloves, and other cold-weather essentials. At several schools, every family received turkeys or holiday meals. In all, the generosity of our partners impacted more than 10 CPS schools, bringing holiday cheer to nearly 3,000 students.
In his first holiday season at the helm of CPS, CEO Pedro Martinez joined in on the gift-giving Thursday at Benjamin E. Mays Elementary in Englewood.
“This is what the season is all about, and it’s overwhelming to see the tremendous response to our CPS families’ needs,” said CEO Martinez. “We are grateful to all the generous companies and partners who rallied to support our students and their families this holiday season. I know how much it means to them.”
More than 20 organizations and individuals contributed to make this holiday season our most generous ever. Amazon, Walmart, and the Foles Believe Foundation each made significant donations to CFF’s holiday Compassion Fund, which supports students and families when they need it most –– for things like winter essentials, holidays, and beyond. Partners for gifts, coats, food, and other contributions included Accelerated Growth, Aldi, Aramark, Cooney and Conway, IMC Foundation, the International We Love You Foundation, Latham & Watkins, Lorelei Partners, Mars, Morgan Stanley, Morningstar, Northwestern Medicine, Showpad, and the Social Conscience Project. In addition, many generous individuals supported the holiday efforts.
Partners supported CPS by working with Children First Fund, the Chicago Public Schools foundation, to give and deliver these gifts, holiday treats, and winter essentials. CFF’s Compassion Fund provided additional resources to further extend our partners’ generosity and reach more school communities.
The events, organized by teacher or classroom to comply with COVID-19 protocols, with spirited celebrations including Mays Elementary’s “Shimmer and Sparkle” day. For select images from these events and others, see here.
The holiday festivities started nearly a month ago, with coats, winter gear, and Thanksgiving turkeys going to students at Nash Elementary, then moved into high gear the week of December 13th, and will continue through early January, when the students of Spry Elementary will celebrate Three Kings’ Day with the help of more of our partners.
“After two tumultuous, challenging years, we wanted this holiday season to bring joyful memories and experiences to CPS students and school communities,” said Sadie Stockdale Jefferson, Executive Director of Children First Fund, “and, thanks to our partners’ generosity, we’ve gotten to see thousands of smiling eyes above carefully-masked faces.”
Some students and families within Chicago Public Schools will be eligible for $500 “microgrants” from the city to help cover the cost of educational and living expenses, officials announced.
“Throughout this pandemic, our students and their families have experienced a number of traumas including the loss of employment, housing and even loved ones,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “The Chicago Families Forward Fund will serve as a meaningful next step in our citywide mission of addressing these traumas and further allow us to provide residents of all ages with the resources they need to thrive.”
The fund will use CARES Act dollars, and will be jointly administered by the city, CPS and the Children First Fund.
According to the city, students in temporary living situations, known as STLS, will be eligible to receive a one-time $500 check that can be picked up at their school. Families with multiple eligible students can receive an equal number of grants.
In Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, Saray spent the 2020-21 school year navigating the everyday challenges of a first-year college student: balancing studies and social interactions, learning how to manage her time with greater independence, and tackling initial courses in her chosen discipline (for her: pursuing a Nursing degree).
But she also had a whole slate of challenges that many college students experience but many others do not: figuring out the complexities of a university and parsing financial aid policies as the first in her family to attend college, and helping care for four younger siblings while her parents juggled work schedules and financial stressors. All this in a global pandemic, which made even “everyday” challenges much more daunting. Through it all, she persevered – and excelled.
Growth in postsecondary education for CPS graduates
Saray isn’t alone in her determination or success. In steadily increasing numbers, Chicago Public Schools students are planning for, pursuing, and succeeding in postsecondary education.
At the same time, students face complicated and unfamiliar challenges to obtaining their desired postsecondary credentials and careers. Chief among them: rising educational and personal costs, multi-faceted family responsibilities, and the continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resources for seniors graduating during the pandemic
In response, CFF developed the Compassion Fund’s postsecondary access program, partnering with CPS Office of College and Career Success (OCCS) to provide resources supporting graduating seniors (and those recently graduated) beginning in spring 2020 and throughout the 2020-21 school year. The power of timely, targeted emergency aid is well-documented, especially for students from backgrounds of limited financial means. Oftentimes, a few hundred dollars can mean the difference between a student matriculating directly to a postsecondary institution or stalling (and, more often than not, permanently discontinuing) their educational journey.
Students and the school communities who support them have navigated an array of challenges, meeting COVID-era transitions to postsecondary education with resilience, flexibility, and determination. Educators and CPS leaders responded to student needs identifying and expanding the needed, targeted supports. Philanthropic partners including Crown Family Philanthropies, PepsiCo, and Fifth Third Bank Foundation contributed college success funding – emphasizing equity, empathy, and rapid-responsiveness in their generosity.
CPS Counselors, College & Career Specialists, and Network and Central Office staff worked nimbly, building a nomination system and aid application review process from scratch. CFF contributed fundraising, project management, and financial expertise to assemble necessary resources and get them to the students who needed them most.
The results were remarkable – at a macro level, 338 students received an average of $432 in emergency financial relief. These funds provided laptops for students who suddenly had to learn remotely when they’d planned to utilize on-campus resources, bus tickets for student transportation to orientations and move-in days, and covered mandatory enrollment fees or other financial hurdles to students’ education.
Saray was one of these students. Graduating in 2020 with a successful high school record, she’d been admitted to her first choice school – North Park University, located only a few short blocks from her family’s home. But then the pandemic hit, and money became even more scarce in her household. A relatively small balance (at least compared to the overall cost of attendance) of $1,008 remained after her financial aid package. Even with a monthly payment plan, this burden felt nearly insurmountable.
Throughout her summer before college and into her freshman year, Saray maintained contact with staff at her CPS high school, and with “Ms. Jenny,” the College & Career Specialist supporting postsecondary efforts at her school. Hearing of the financial obstacles to Saray’s postsecondary plans, this team encouraged her to apply for CFF’s postsecondary success funds, and then connected her with the additional resources from the Continued Transition program. It’s hard to say who smiled widest – Saray, her mother, or Ms. Jenny – when they saw her bursar balance’s updated total: $0. A few weeks later, Saray even received a refund of the payment they’d already cobbled together for their original installment plan. With these funds, she covered the cost of a textbook and online fees for another class – yet another expense she had yet to figure out how to pay.
OCCS devoted significant time and resources to these efforts, and simultaneously collaborated with CFF to get additional funds to students, creating an initiative directing additional advising and financial support to a cohort of schools, thanks to the generous donation of another longtime CFF partner. OCCS’ Continued Transition program also garnered positive results, especially in re-engaging students who’d indicated plans to attend college but hadn’t immediately matriculated in the fall of 2020.
Addressing the details for success at scale
Meeting diverse and specific needs is messy, complicated work. Making this large-scale postsecondary success a reality for students involved educators and administrators tracking packages across Chicagoland to help students locate their pre-loaded debit cards, problem-solving for families with unstable and shifting financial circumstances, and anticipating unique needs of transient populations such as Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS). In more than one instance, someone had to meet or reroute USPS deliveries.
Impact on postsecondary options and experiences
All of this labor and dedication provided invaluable support, advising, and personal connection points — vital to encouraging students, caring for their social and emotional well-being, and helping them navigate a complicated life-transition in an unfamiliar landscape. But the impact went beyond advice and encouragement thanks to the generosity of our philanthropic partners. Meeting needs both social-emotional and practical/financial has the potential to dramatically improve students’ educational and professional trajectories. For hundreds of CPS ’20 graduates, our philanthropic partners recognized and supported that transformative potential firsthand.
Thanks to our partners’ continued generosity, these enhanced supports are again available to CPS students graduating in 2021. Having seen the immense impact of these postsecondary success funds for our alumni, we hope to replicate and expand this initiative in years to come.
Interested in supporting CPS students’ continued success?
In unique circumstances, our community has responded with extraordinary support. Throughout this tumultuous year, partners and supporters have rallied around CPS students. As part of CFF’s broader work on behalf of Chicago Public Schools, our Compassion Fund has raised over $11M for COVID-19 Crisis Response, plus millions more from in-kind donations. Resources contributed to the Compassion Fund provide direct emergency relief for schools and families.
An outpouring of generosity
An immense network has united in partnership, helping ensure CPS families are safe and supported – and that students are equipped to succeed despite changes to their learning environment. Since January 2020, Children First Fund has received support from over 1,200 individual and organizational donors. Donations reflect the diversity of our community of supporters, with contributions ranging from $5 to over $1M.
Support that extends beyond the classroom
Students and families have long looked to CPS for support that extends beyond the classroom, particularly in times of crisis. That’s apparent this year more than ever. Amidst skyrocketing unemployment and a daunting public health emergency, CPS students have shouldered immense personal and family responsibilities – all while pursuing their own educations and adapting to dramatic changes in their learning environments.
Each day, Chicago’s dedicated school leaders and educators help their school communities process and deal with the pandemic’s sweeping impact. Alongside COVID-19, students have confronted numerous other crises, including increased national awareness about racial violence, civil disobedience, and waves of civic unrest. Innovative and empathetic as ever, Chicago’s educators offer their communities practical, mental, and emotional support.
To meet acute, unpredictable needs with responsive, flexible funding, Children First Fund has collaborated with CPS principals throughout the pandemic to equitably distribute resources to hundreds of CPS schools. Established relationships with principals paved the way for school leaders to request support from the Compassion Fund throughout the crisis.
Laura Lemone, EdD and Chief of Schools for CPS’ Network 14, says she “appreciates the simplicity of the process” created for the Compassion Fund’s COVID-19 Response efforts, which she describes as a “godsend” for families in Network 14 experiencing “sudden — and, unfortunately, often multiple — challenges” throughout the extended crisis. She underscores the importance of leveraging school leaders’ strong and trusting relationships with families in their communities: “when hardship comes, the schools know and try to quickly connect the family” with the resources they need. And turnaround time is crucial, as families’ needs and situations can shift rapidly.
“We are very quickly able to gather referrals from schools and approve and distribute resources quickly,” continues Lemone. “A quick response of flexible aid can ensure families have groceries that week or their utilities stay on.”
Emergency relief: widespread and individualized
With emergency relief that is both widespread and individualized, the Compassion Fund aims to help meet and ease the divergent, unpredictable challenges of our present moment. Distribution has prioritized support that empowers families to address their most pressing needs and meeting these needs in a responsive, equitable manner requires constant collaboration with school communities and their leaders. All along the way, it’s been resourced by an outpouring of generosity from our community of friends and supporters.
“The staff is going to be so excited and you better believe I will pull out all the stops. It is wonderful to know that someone is truly listening. In my 30 years of doing this work, this feels so refreshing and gives me something to look forward to as each new day presents its challenges. You guys are truly family.”
Principal Freeney, Kellman Corporate School, sharing about a staff appreciation grant to boost morale for essential workers
CFF Compassion Fund support for CPS students during 2020
Through donations to the Compassion Fund, Children First Fund has been able to equitably distribute resources directly to hundreds of CPS school communities, including over 12,000 technology devices, 30,000 culturally relevant books, and 4,500 pre-K-2nd literacy kits. District-wide investments in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) aim to help students process trauma and grief. Our partners’ support has brought Rainbows’ “Silver Linings” program into over 300 schools and trained 750+ educators, with additional trainings scheduled for early in 2021.
“Receiving this Chromebook will truly help my child to finish his 8th-grade year strong! I am very happy and pleased that Chicago Public Schools was able to make this happen.”
Parent, Ellington Elementary School
Aid has reached families and communities as well, with emergency financial relief of $100-$500 for over 1,000 families facing extenuating circumstances and microgrants given to 350 graduates from the Class of 2020 to ease their post-secondary transitions.
Back-to-School: Equipping Students for Remote Learning
In preparation for the school year, our community of supporters united to equip CPS school communities for a year unlike any other. CFF equitably distributed resources, ensuring our students and schools had the resources to meet this historic moment.
Partners working with CFF through the Compassion Fund’s Back-to-School initiative supported CPS students in novel ways. They helped furnish dedicated home learning spaces with desks, tables, lamps, and other essentials. In addition to CPS’ massive distribution of learning technology, hundreds of students received new headphones to help them focus and engage while learning at home.
The monumental Chicago Connected effort endeavors to empower over 100,000 of our neighbors with internet access. Partner initiatives have supported Child Learning Hubs for families of essential workers. Through aid to the District’s meal distribution efforts, our supporters have provided tens of millions of meals for Chicago families.
Tangible donations like these have been critically important. But it is impossible to overstate the power of intangible support from our community. CPS students, teachers, and staff know that their neighbors and their city is supporting them through this difficult time. We are truly grateful to the companies, foundations, institutions, and individuals who have rallied together to lift up our school communities.
Bringing practical support and encouragement to CPS school communities
During the pandemic, the Compassion Fund has helped bring practical support and encouragement to thousands of students and families across our city. Flexible emergency relief has empowered CPS schools and principals to the heightened needs of their student body–fostering community, boosting morale, and helping students continue learning. And, although they’ve often been concealed behind face masks (including in-kind donations of more than 2.5 million cloth face coverings from CFF partners), we’ve seen an inspiring growth in another essential resource: smiles.
What is the CFF Compassion Fund?
The Compassion Fund supports CPS students by allowing Children First Fund to act immediately when CPS families need us the most. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to move to remote learning, our community responded with an outpouring of generosity. Record numbers of support went to students for computers and headphones connectivity, remote work desks and early reading kits, multicultural books, meal distribution and food delivery, SEL wrap-around services, direct family relief and more.
Moving forward, immense needs persist in our school communities. Whether students move to in-person learning or remain in remote learning, the pandemic continues to have a pronounced impact on the life circumstances and educational needs of our students. While exacerbated by the current public health crisis, most of the needs addressed by the Compassion Fund existed long before the pandemic.
We’ve seen this past year how rapidly our circumstances can shift. In an unpredictable environment, flexibility is crucial for rapid responses to emergent needs. Through our partners continued investments in the Compassion Fund, CFF is positioned to provide precisely this kind of support to Chicago’s students.
To those in the Chicagoland area and beyond who have given with such enthusiasm and compassion, thank you for joining us! Your continued partnership is vital to addressing systemic, local, and individual issues and fulfilling CPS’ Mission, providing a high-quality public education for every child, in every neighborhood, that prepares each for success in college, career, and civic life.