Take Five with Michelle Adler Morrison of Youth Guidance
Take Five is an interview series that highlights Polk Bros. Foundation grantees who are taking impressive actions to overcome common challenges and who are making a difference for Chicagoans most affected by poverty and inequity. We believe these insights are critical for Chicago’s future.
Youth Guidance was one of the first organizations Polk Bros. Foundation supported to implement the full-service community schools model, one of the Foundation’s first proactive grantmaking initiatives. We were impressed with their work on the Comer School Development Program, and felt it showed that they understood how to engage a school’s entire staff and surrounding community to work together to remove barriers to learning and increase parent and community engagement in children’s education.
We’re grateful Michelle has agreed to share her insights in this post.
1. How is Youth Guidance helping to make Chicago a place where all people can reach their full potential?
Michelle: We listen to what youth tell us about their hopes, dreams, and challenges and pay close attention to what’s going on that either supports or hinders their ability to meet their potential. In response, we create and implement dynamic programs to help them to overcome life challenges and focus on their education.
We are present in schools to facilitate an environment that truly engages students in the learning process. We are constantly posing the question, “How can we help make the school a better resource to the community?” One way is to support the school in meeting the needs of the whole child; addressing not only the cognitive-intellectual needs of students, but the social-emotional, physical, creative and cultural pathways as well. By rallying supports and implementing programming directly in schools, we help young people and families access critical supports and dynamic learning opportunities often offered only in better resourced communities. Though our Community School programs, we engage not only the youth but the entire community within the school creating a sense of ownership and collective responsibility for student success academically and beyond.
2. What does success look like for your organization?
Michelle: Success means youth understand they matter, become more engaged in school, build healthier relationships and are better prepared for success after high school. Our data tell us that we are improving on-track graduation rates, social emotional skills and mental health. But success also means we are helping strengthen a sense of belonging and community. Our Community School program at Fenger High School conducted a “Day of Empathy” featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Sierra Leonean activist, Ishmael Beah. This was an incredibly powerful way to provide students with the opportunity to bring voice to their own personal stories and connect deeply with the remarkable in others.
3. What obstacles are in your way as you work to achieve your mission and how are you approaching them?
Michelle: Far too many of our students experience trauma through daily exposure to poverty and community violence, which can interrupt the central task of adolescence: the search for and development of a positive identity. The challenges are many. For young people of color, upward economic mobility has been negatively influenced by many factors, including persistent discrimination, intergenerational poverty, and significant gaps in access to resources and opportunities
Because we also know that youth are resilient and do better when they have consistent support from caring adults, we strive to create an emotionally safe and enriching environment within their school, building a community of support that includes teachers, parents and community members. Although we see on-time graduation rates significantly improve, we know that many of our students need additional support to successfully transition out of high school and into the world of work and/or college. We are working with a vast array of community partners, both on the workforce and college access fronts, to ensure that our youth get the continued support they need to stay on track, find and fulfill their purpose.
4. What have you seen recently that surprised you, inspired you or has you most concerned about the future of Chicago?
Michelle: I’m excited by our new mayor and her direct focus on out of school time programming and full-service community schools as means to help prevent community violence. Two of our of alumni had the honor to serve on her Youth Transition team and I was blown away by how seriously they took the opportunity and the impact they were able to have in helping chart the course forward for the city.
Every day I am inspired. By using a community school approach, we’ve seen first-hand how strengthening schools can serve as a force multiplier in dramatically improving community-level and individual student outcomes. For example, when we first started working with Aldridge Elementary School, the Altgeld Gardens community had identified a glaring gap in support for youth ages 11-14. The majority of the students were entering high school underprepared academically, socially and emotionally and were met with daily challenges living in a disinvested community with some of the highest poverty, unemployment and crime rates in the city. We worked closely with the school and community partners, including the Chicago Housing Authority and Park District, to provide coordinated holistic and robust learning and enrichment opportunities, social-emotional supports and parent engagement activities helping the school go from critical status to a top-rated school. The benefits of strengthened relationships, coordinated services, improved school climate, leveraging of parent and community strengths, early identification and prevention approaches go far beyond improving outcomes for the current set of participants and extend into the years ahead because there is a new way of pulling together. I’m inspired by and honored to work alongside the passionate staff of Youth Guidance. The integrity, drive, excellence, authenticity, and commitment they bring to their work — and their relationships with students — is what makes the real difference.
5. What do you see in the course of your work that you wish others could know or understand?
Michelle: That our youth have such incredible potential that could be fully realized if we would just give them support and guidance when they need it most. I’ve witnessed firsthand their openness, enthusiasm, and growth through programming when it is culturally responsive, supportive, challenging and delivered by skilled staff. They aren’t the problem. We are. We let schools go under-resourced and don’t demand equity. Community school programming and social emotional supports are what every child needs to develop fully and succeed. If we believe in the potential of our youth, we should make access to these opportunities a priority. We need to feel the collective responsibility for their success and have the personal and political will to invest in their futures.
Michelle Adler Morrison is Chief Executive Officer of Youth Guidance
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