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Charter school dean advocates for mental health care for students and families

Posted on: August 15, 2019

Pointing to a picture of a recent graduate, La Norra Dennis’ eyes light up as she smiles. “That’s one of our students,” she explained with evident pride. “He’s doing really well. He was recently promoted at his job.”

That student is one of many that bring a smile to Dennis’ face. As a dean on the culture team at Legal Prep Charter Academy, a charter public high school in West Garfield Park, Dennis offers guidance and support to the legal-themed school’s 300 students.

While nearly 80 percent of students graduate from the high school and volunteer, many students report facing challenges on campus because of what happens outside of school in West Garfield Park in Chicago’s West Side.

According to the Chicago Police Department, West Garfield Park has the most reported cases of prostitution in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods. West Garfield Park also has high rates of drug abuse, robberies, and other violent crimes.

“In some neighborhoods, prostitution, drug abuse, rape, and exposure to violence are rare events,” Dennis said. “But here, it happens more often. As a result, our students are experiencing a great deal of trauma off campus, and success in education depends on our ability to address the very real trauma our students encounter.”

Various studies have found that exposure to trauma can negatively impact a student’s mental health and some measures of their academic performance. In order to succeed, Dennis and other staff at Legal Prep recognize that students need more than access to stellar academics.

“Students need ongoing mental and emotional care,” Dennis said.

Legal Prep staff has taken steps to support students coping with trauma. Teachers attend workshops to equip themselves with emotional tools and strategies to aid students. Staff regularly facilitate conversations with students about some of the trauma they experience. The school also ensures that whenever violence directly impacts the student population, a psychologist comes in and offers professional support.

In the absence of ample ongoing mental health solutions in the neighborhood, Legal Prep staff leads the charge in providing even more support moving forward. In addition to the two full time counselors on staff, they have added a full time social worker. This is an essential and strategic move to provide ongoing professional care for students dealing with trauma. One teacher wants to implement a program in which Legal Prep opens its doors Friday evenings to give students a safe place to spend those hours. Another staff member wants to provide safe passage to and from school for all students in the neighborhood.

In order to implement and sustain these solutions, Legal Prep would need additional financial support. Hiring additional staff, security, social workers, and full-time psychologists costs significantly more than the budget can currently manage, and these changes cannot wait, Dennis said. Equitable funding for charter schools would greatly benefit both students and families in West Garfield Park.

“Our students are brilliant, resilient kids who come to school every day in spite of traumatic events at home or in the neighborhood,” Dennis said. “These students deserve equitable funding to provide adequate access to ongoing, emotional care.”

To learn more and support Legal Prep Charter Academy, visit supportlegalprep.org.