New funding will grow program for at-risk youth

New funding will grow program for at-risk youth

(Ind.) An Indiana program designed to keep at-risk children in school and out of the criminal justice system received more than $215,000 to hire more mentors and expand into more schools.

The Allen County Juvenile Center’s “Check and Connect” program pairs students with trained mentors who monitor a student’s academic performance, absences, tardies, behavioral referrals and grades. Mentors work with students for at least two years, providing help with problem solving and skill-building, as well as serving as liaisons between home and school.

Students are referred to the program by school officials when they show warning signs of disengaging from school, such as poor attendance, behavioral issues or worsening grades.

“The issues facing kids right now are difficult to understand unless you’ve faced them,” Jill Carboni, the juvenile center's education director, said in a statement. “There are children in our community every day facing lack of food, lack of a parental presence at home–even homelessness. They deserve our help, and that’s what Check and Connect is here to do.”

Part of the goal of the Check and Connect program is to keep students out of the criminal justice system by reducing truancies–as schools must file truancy affidavits against students who chronically miss school.

Studies have long shown that students who enter the juvenile justice system have significantly worse economic outcomes than those who have not been incarcerated, which is in turn associated with lower levels of mental well-being, physical health, social attachments, and a lower life expectancy. Additionally, up to one-third of incarcerated youth return to jail or prison within a few years after release. 

Administrators of the Allen County program said that the additional funding will help to expand the number of mentors and participating high schools, which could reduce crime rates. About 60 percent of juvenile crime takes place during school hours, they said, so ensuring more kids remain in school should result in fewer teenagers committing crimes such as shoplifting, car theft or dealing drugs during and after school hours.

There has already been some progress. In its first year, during the 2014-15 school year, the program reportedly lowered the number of expulsions and suspensions, as well as truancies and tardies, and increased attendance rates and grades among participating students.

The goal of Check and Connect is to curb school truancy by at least 10 percent and lower the drop-out rate in high truancy schools.

Truancy mentors are hired and trained by University of Minnesota instructors, and work to communicate with both school staff and the students’ families to make sure each child has the resources at home and school to succeed. Mentors aim to meet with students 100 times during the school year through daily informal meetings and formal meetings once a week.

The grant, totaling $217,333, came from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute’s Title II program, which supports programming to improve the delivery of services and the ability of the criminal justice system to serve all citizens.

The funds will go toward helping pay for existing mentors and for new mentors to place in additional area schools. Mentors are currently placed in Fort Wayne and East Allen Community Schools and serve about 130 students, but administrators said they’d like to see about 200 students in more schools receiving mentorship.

“This is the largest grant we have ever received for Check and Connect,” Andrea Trevino, Allen County Juvenile Center supervising judge, said in a statement. “This tells us something important: That the work Check and Connect accomplishes is important and impactful on the students we serve. It also gives us the encouragement our team needs to keep building on what Check and Connect has already accomplished.” more