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In Champaign, A New Effort To Close The Racial Achievement Gap At School

Unit 4's Garden Hills Elementary School in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign Unit Four School Board is set to review a new program aimed at narrowing the racial achievement gap at its April 26 meeting. On April 20, the Champaign City Council renewed its support for the program, which is called LIFT Champaign.

The city and school district are working together to launch LIFT Champaign, and have budgeted nearly $600,000 for its first year of operation. LIFT Champaign’s name deliberately echoes the title of the unofficial “Black national anthem” by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice And Sing”. The goal is to provide help to students and their families — mostly Black — who are facing the greatest need. Final approval by both bodies could come in May, with the program launching this summer.

Champaign Deputy City Manager Joan Walls and Unit Four Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Inclusion Angela Ward talked about the program with Illinois Newsroom’s Jim Meadows. Walls began by outlining the program’s basic details.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

JOAN WALLS: So the LIFT Champaign program is an intense wraparound support program to support youth and families who really are in crisis. LIFT stands for Leading Individuals and Families to Transformation. And it’s just so important that the school district and the city recognized, back in 2018, a real need to begin to think about what we might be able to do to partner with families. And so we reviewed materials, and we had an opportunity to talk with families and talk with teachers and elected officials and the students and youth. And we listened. And so this LIFT Champaign program is designed specifically answering and responding to the needs that the families shared with us.

JM: And Angela, can you tell me a little bit about in talking with the families? What were they needing? And how could the school district and the city provide it?

ANGELA WARD: For a lot of our families, I think what they need is an opportunity, where you talk about the needs of social, emotional, and behavioral supports, students needing tutoring during the school day, extended day activities, things to do on the weekend, while you have parents who may be working. And really just a peer or someone to talk to, and to navigate through maybe college and career opportunities that parents have not been able to experience. Specific things that we take as basic fundamental needs that we understand through marginalization, and through systems and, and trauma, sometimes, really gets in the way of families having those same experiences. So for our families, they just want an opportunity to have access to those things to help get them there.

JM: How do you identify families in need? Or do they seek you out?

WARD: We’re data driven. So we had metrics that included food or shelter insecurity, academic needs, discipline, referrals or suspensions. That’s traumatic for a student, right? Because at that point, they’ve been rejected to some extent from our schools. So when we look at those metrics, that was how we identify families and students that may have had adverse experiences, or may be having some challenges. And we’re going to invite them. It’s our role to reach out to take a stance of advocacy.

JM: And it sounds like just from the few examples that you’ve mentioned, that this can cover a wide range of things from help at school to things like being able to keep a household together with food and shelter.

WARD: Absolutely.

WALLS: Yeah, that’s correct. And that’s what’s unique about the LIFT Champaign program. It wraps around the entire family. To some people, the school day, it ends at three o’clock. But we know that trauma, and challenges occur after 3 p.m. And so what makes this different than some of the other programs is the ability to connect with the families, understand what their needs are, and really build a support system and network based on each family’s individual needs, because they all will differ.

JM: Now, this is a program which has been described as wanting to help African American families. Is this going to be serving African American families exclusively? Legally, can you make that distinction?

WARD: We have identified more than just African American families. About 63 of the students, are African American. We have multiracial students that have been identified, Hispanic students and white students as well. The reason why we focused on African Americans is that when we look at our data over and over again, regardless of how you slice the metrics or the identifiers, overwhelmingly, your African American students are overrepresented: in discipline, and food insecurity and lack of shelter, and suspensions, 85% for us. Anytime we have that number that is so extreme, and there’s a gap, we had to name them specifically. We had to say African Americans. But it’s not exclusive. We do have other families that are identified.

JM: So that’s a few dozen families, and how many families will you serve? And for how long will they receive the services?

WARD: There are 78 individual students identified. First 67 families, because we have 11 students that are siblings, to some extent. Our goal is to to serve them till the needs are met, as long as it’s within our purview to get those needs met. So it’s not like we put a time limit to say, you know what, you’ve experienced trauma and you need to be done in six months, right? No, we will give them the time to heal and be empowered. And when they have the intake process for things that may be quick wins, like maybe there’s a small barrier to attendance or something like that, if there are small wins, of course, families can move to empowerment sooner. But if there are things that are a little more complex, we are going to give our families an opportunity to work through those, so they can be strong in where they need to be, so that they matriculate through our system. And they leave here college and career-ready or ready for different life experiences.

JM: Are these all the families and and students who need help in Champaign? Or are they all that you have the capacity for at this point?

WALLS: Yeah, they are all that we have the capacity for at this point. When we began to develop the program, we looked at individuals who had four or more of the criteria. And that put us at over 200 students. And we knew that we did not have the capacity. And so the district went back and refined their focus. And we went with three or more. And that’s where we landed, so we were able to identify the 78 students.

JM: So that brings up the question is how do you measure success in this program? How do you know if especially because in making your presentation to the city council on April 20, you talked about past efforts and how they had made progress, but but not enough progress. How do you know if LIFT Champaign has worked, or if it hasn’t, and when will you know?

WARD: We had someone ask a really interesting question. And the question was, what does success look like for you and for your family? I think success will be determined during the intake process, of what it is families are trying to achieve, what some of the overall non-negotiables may be as a student and how those things mesh. I think that measures success. My success may look different than what Joan sees as successful. That’s one of those questions that is really difficult to ask. Success means that we’re not seeing our students in the middle of continued trauma, continued school failure, poverty and violence.

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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