Dr. Michelle Hoy-Watkins
S.O.S. program needed now
By J. Coyden Palmer
Last month the Chicago Public Schools announced they would be laying off 2,000 teachers and support staff for the upcoming school year. In response to the news, many critics have said those who will be put at most risk will be students with special needs. Not only those with learning and physical disabilities are at risk, but those students with past behavioral issues and those who have been identified as being at risk of being victims of Chicago street violence could lose essential services. Those cuts come in addition to the 855 teachers given pink slips in June.
Dr. Michelle Hoy-Watkins, Department Chairperson of Forensic Psychology at The Chicago School Forensic Center, said she is worried many of her former clients will be put in peril by the school closings and subsequent layoff of staff. Hoy-Watkins created a program Save Our School Children [SOS] four years ago that is designed to work with male youth in the 6th through 12th grades with a focus on violence prevention. Last school year, Hoy-Watkins went into five different schools and facilitated weekly life skills groups that focused on conflict resolution, anger management, problem solving, self-esteem building and other essential skills.
The program also focused on goal development, future planning, vocational training and helping students fill out job applications. The idea is to give students different skill sets so they can make better decisions that will result in a reduction in their contact with police and the criminal court system, in addition to a reduction in disciplinary problems in school and to improve academic achievement.
“It’s my belief that these kids can be helped,” Hoy-Watkins said. “There is no bad child or adolescent. Just like other people, kids can make poor choices. We’re in a position to help provide opportunities to kids so they can make better choices. I’ve seen radical changes in some youth and I do believe if we provide a kid with the right resources and alternatives, along with the right opportunities change can happen.”
Hoy-Watkins explained the population focus group in the program is based on the school identifying a student whom they feel needs assistance or is at risk of being a perpetrator or victim of violence. Many of the students are involved in gang activity and are on probation or home confinement. Others have multiple suspensions at school and are having trouble with their academics. It is a challenging population. Most of the kids in the group are at a point where they need some kind of intervention in order to be successful, Hoy-Watkins said.
“I think for the kids the most critical thing needed is opportunities in the community,” she said. “Whether it’s wrap around services for kids when they get out of school, resources… the kids critically need opportunities. I’ve worked with a lot of kids who have only seen things from one perspective; a negative one. If they have an opportunity to shadow an African American male who is successful, I think that in and of itself can have a positive impact on a child.”
The S.O.S. program was at Claremont Academy, Crane High School, Kenwood Academy, Dumas Elementary and Innovation High School (alternative) last school year. Dumas is one of the 50 schools being closed by CPS officials this year. Hoy-Watkins is concerned about her former students at Dumas and is not optimistic those students will get the attention they need at their new school. The S.O.S. program initially started with only high school freshmen and was to work with them until they graduated. But Hoy-Watkins and her staff quickly realized even when dealing with 13 or 14 year-old freshmen, they had already been impacted by so many negative influences that she felt the intervention needed to begin in the middle school.
“I think identifying at risk at an earlier age is always best because you can get the help to them before things get really bad,” she said. The most pressing need for the S.O.S. program is funding. They are funded based on donations and they do various fundraisers throughout the year. She said without the dollars, the help they can give kids are limited.
“The more fundraising dollars we have, the broader the reach we have in terms of what we can do for the kids.”
Hoy-Watkins said out of the fundraising dollars last year they were able to pay one of the participants to work at a local YMCA as an apprentice. He went from 3:30 p.m. until 7 p.m., which was an alternative to what he was previously doing after school, selling drugs.
“So not only do we need fundraising dollars, we need support services for our kids,” Hoy-Watkins said. “I need church-based organizations and community agencies that I can partner with to offer similar types of assistance so that between those critical hours of 3:30 until 7 or 8 p.m. students have somewhere safe to go and are off the street doing something constructive.”
Last year S.O.S. held a tie drive at Claremont Academy. The school has a uniform policy where boys must wear a tie with their white shirts. Hoy-Watkins discovered many of the boys did not have a tie. She wanted to do some sort of community service where the boys could be involved that would help impact their school. After months of donations from members of the community, they were able to get each boy in the school several ties to wear with their uniform.
To learn more about the S.O.S. program or make a donation, you can contact Hoy-Watkins via email at: mhoy@- thechicagoschool.edu or visit the website http://forensiccenter.org/saveourschoolchildrensos/.