Chicago, IL — A year after retiring as a Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher, Laverne Browne is back on campus, this time at Ombudsman Chicago South Alternative School, where in her new role as a youth Advocate, she was among those honored at a recent luncheon for their service.
“It feels good. We [Advocates] spend a lot of time with our students. More than the school knows. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged for a commitment we give to CPS students. Most of us are products of CPS ourselves,” said Browne, who completed her primary school education at Raymond and Stephen Douglas before graduating from Wendell Phillips High School.
Browne works for Chicago Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., which in partnership with Children’s Home & Aid, engages students heavily impacted by violence and trauma as part of a program called Choose to Change (C2C). University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab randomized controlled trial data found C2C, which began in 2015, is reducing violent crimes by 48 percent.
YAP, a national nonprofit in 32 states and the District of Columba, is in its 47th year of providing community-based wraparound services as an alternative to youth incarceration and congregate child welfare, behavioral health, and intellectual disabilities placements. In recent years, YAP has also been combining its evidence-based model with others to provide services that prevent and disrupt violence. The program recently received funding from the City of Chicago and CPS, enabling staff to train four other nonprofits, expanding C2C-informed programming to reach up to 1,000 students by the end of 2022.
As a C2C YAP Advocate, Browne attends weekly structured psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress (SPARCS) sessions with the students she works with. She said it’s one of many opportunities the program gives her to understand the complex challenges program participants face.
“As an Advocate, I have the flexibility to set my own hours,” Browne said, adding that as a result, she can provide the kind of tangible support the students need to set economic and emotional goals as well as educational ones. “Right now,” she said in a phone interview for this story, “I’m at the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] with a student who called me at 3 this morning saying she had to get here.”
YAP trains its mostly neighborhood-based Advocates and other staff to meet program participants where they are and to connect them and their parents, guardians and other family members to tools they need to meet their goals and firm the foundation of their home life.
“I also get to visit students’ homes and see how concerned their parents are and what’s going on in their lives,” Browne said, sharing as an example how by doing so, she was able to help one mother in her own education journey.
“She didn’t have a high school diploma and couldn’t write in cursive. So, I told her about this GED program. A lot of people don’t want their kids to graduate before them. Just knowing that we not only provide services for the student, but also the parents is a good feeling,” she added.
Browne said most of the C2C program participants she works with are girls, some of whom are parents themselves.
“One of my students has two children under three and a baby on the way. We helped her get a job, which gave her the extra income she needed,” Browne said. “As my program director, Carla Felton, says, ‘you have to build bonds.’”
Browne said her career journey came with its own challenges. At Chicago’s Columbia College, she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and initially had a job in corporate marketing before realizing that her real passion was working with children. The first time she applied for a two-year Teachers for Chicago internship program that helped non-education majors get credentialed to teach, she didn’t get in. After she completed a couple of semesters at Roosevelt University, she applied again. She was accepted and would work in several schools before getting her dream assignment in 2011 at a school on the south side four blocks from her home.
“I’ll never forget that first day. I walked and it was the coldest, snowiest winter in Chicago. They put me in a fifth-grade class to observe, where at the time there was a substitute teacher. I sat back and watched and took notes on what I needed to do. They needed organization and rules. The next day, I said, ‘OK let’s go. It was great. I loved that class.”
In 2019, with the schools turning to remote learning due to the onset of the pandemic, Browne realized that to effectively teach her young students, she also had to teach a lot of parents how to use the computer and how to structure their lives to support their children’s studies.
“Most of my students did really well,” she said. “That summer, after learning about YAP, Browne applied for a part-time Advocate job with the nonprofit. That’s when she was certain that while she loved teaching and all the benefits that came with it, her calling was to be a youth Advocate, to provide tools to help young people succeed in school, at home and in their personal relationships.
She said while her biggest reward with C2C is to see her students graduate, being an Advocate lets her also appreciate the value of the small steps that come along the way.
“Last year, our graduating seniors had an option to decorate their caps. I got one of the students some jewels, pins, a glue gun – just that little thing meant so much,” Browne said.
To learn more about C2C, visit choosetochangechicago.org. Learn more about YAP at YAPInc.org and follow the organization on Twitter @yapinc.