Amani Leadership Program - Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Chicago
- Amani Leadership Program - Peace Corner Youth Center, Illinois
“We really believe that our kids can reach their full potential if they're given the right tools and guidance and acknowledge that childhood is a special time. It should be a time where kids get to feel safe, engage in play, get messy, have fun and do things that will help shape their identity, build their confidence and really think about what's next for them.”
Middle school is tough. It's a time marked by significant changes—academics become more demanding, relationships with peers and family members evolve, and many young individuals start to feel disconnected. This stage of adolescence is also a pivotal developmental period where children are granted greater independence, assigned more responsibilities, and held to higher expectations by adults. They also form meaningful friendships, solidify their identities, and begin planning for their futures. It's a crucial period where lifelong habits, values, and social networks are established, and it's also when many enduring mental health conditions, including behavioral and anxiety disorders, develop. These conditions can lead to adverse behavioral outcomes, such as academic struggles, involvement in criminal activities, substance abuse, self-harm, or suicidal tendencies. And youth from under-resourced communities face additional hurdles, including limited financial resources and exposure to violence, drug use, or parental incarceration. These challenges are exacerbated by inadequate access to mental health care and the fear of being judged or mistrusted by mental health care providers.
The Austin neighborhood in Chicago is one such area where these challenges are prevalent. Violence in Chicago is on the news a lot, but it doesn’t affect all neighborhoods equally and Austin has seen a higher rate than most. Additionally, 95% of students come from low-income households, and one in ten grapple with housing instability. Only 13% of residents hold a college degree, significantly lower than the city's average. Moreover, 60% of young men aged 20 to 24 in this neighborhood are not engaged in either work or school.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago (CCAC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to accompanying and assisting residents in the Chicago area, including through their new Amani Leadership Program.
The Amani Leadership Program is housed in the welcoming and safe environment of the Peace Corner Youth Center in the Austin neighborhood. Participants have access to enrichment activities designed to develop social-emotional skills, build personal resilience, and develop and maintain healthy friendships and relationships. One key element distinguishing this program is the on-site clinician infused into regular programming, which may make youth more comfortable seeking out mental health services when they need it. They will receive trauma-informed one-on-one and small group counseling sessions to support their mental health and build identity and self esteem. Finally, their families will have access to other supports, such as parent education and case management, should they wish to use them.
What is the impact of participating in a structured, intensive after-school mentoring and mental health support program on students in middle school and their transition into high school, as measured by educational and behavioral outcomes, social connectedness, and their relationship with mental health services?
Youth participating in the program will have improved educational outcomes demonstrated through reduced absenteeism, on-time grade progression, school disciplinary records, and readiness for ninth grade.
Youth participating in the program will have less interactions with the juvenile justice system, a more positive outlook and likelihood of utilizing health services, and social connectedness.
Research Study Design
LEO intends to employ a randomized controlled trial (RCT) design to evaluate the impact of structured mentoring with mental health support for middle school students in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. Due to limited resources, CCAC cannot offer program spots to all eligible children, necessitating randomization as a fair means of selection.
Families with children entering fifth grade in the fall will be recruited near the end of each summer. Interested parents and children will be informed about the program's details at in-person meetings and invited to complete an enrollment form and survey. Parents will have the opportunity to consent to their children's participation, while children will be able to assent. Before randomization, CCAC will confirm the continued interest of consenting families. A randomized list of consenting, interested families will be generated and used to offer eligible children placements in the Amani Leadership Program, proceeding until all spots are filled.
The treatment group will comprise children offered a place in the program, allowing them to participate in mentoring sessions, enrichment activities, counseling, and other resources. The control group will consist of children not offered a spot in the mentoring program. While they won't have access to program-specific activities, they can still engage in the Peace Corner Youth Center's standard programming.
Siblings of study participants reaching the eligible age range during the study period will be assigned to the same group, either treatment or control, as their sibling if they consent to the study.
Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Chicago (CCAC) plans to leverage the study's findings to refine and expand their programs at the Peace Corner Youth Center and in other communities serving youth. Findings from this rigorous impact evaluation will contribute knowledge in support of developing effective, evidence-based mentoring and counseling programs, particularly those serving youth from under-resourced communities. This study also plans to track child academic and behavioral outcomes over several years, distinguishing it from prior research and providing a more complete picture of the program’s long-term effects.