The term “at-risk” youth is used to define a child, which for many possible reasons, is less likely to successfully transition to adulthood. Perhaps they have limited academic success that may limit their ability to be gainfully employed and financially independent. Also possible is their risk for being involved in the Juvenile Justice system, and ultimately the adult Criminal Justice System. The Texas Education Agency currently provides thirteen criteria for determination of an at-risk student. These include poor academic achievements on readiness tests or overall grade point average; grade retention; pregnancy or parenthood; expulsion; being on probation or parole; limited English proficiency; homelessness; and/or resides in some form of residential placement. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these criteria are heavily correlated with socioeconomic status. Children and families financially disadvantaged are also more likely to experience formal involvement with the criminal and juvenile justice system.
There are many barriers to achievement in school for students from low socioeconomic and/or minority backgrounds. Although these students tend to mirror their non-low income peers in achievement when starting school, overtime they are less likely to persist in school; graduate from high school; attend college; apply to selective colleges; or to achieve at the highest levels. Because these students are not adequately prepared for the increasing academic demands required as they progress through school, their potential for academic motivation and achievement decreases over time. Currently there are an estimated 3.4 million high-achieving students from low-income and/or minority families in our classrooms, making it an imperative that we find ways to reach these students to make sure that they succeed and see college as something attainable to them.
The Fifth Ward of Houston, a predominantly African-American and Hispanic community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the state, with particularly high rates of teen pregnancy, single-parent households, gang violence, and high school dropouts. In 1984, in response to various community needs recognized by prominent community leaders, The Fifth Ward Enrichment Program (FWEP) was born. 33 years later, the FWEP continues to provide case-management and in-school support to students in five schools across Fifth Ward neighborhoods. Further, they provide family and youth support, peer leadership and mentoring, recreational activities, community service projects, and a host of other activities designed at improving self-discipline and self-esteem to nearly 250 boys between the ages of 12-19.
The College of Public Service houses the disciplines of Criminal Justice, Social Work and Urban Education. To give students hands-on, practical experiences that complement their studies, partnerships are created with community agencies that work address the specific needs of the families in which they serve. When Dr. Nina Barbieri, Criminal Justice Professor, wanted to create a service-learning component to her CJ 3306: Crime & Delinquency class that would explore underlying causes and correlates of at-risk youth, the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program seemed a natural partner for her living classroom.
The Crime and Delinquency class introduces Dr. Barbieri’s students to understanding the role of the justice system and community agencies in controlling, intervening, and preventing delinquency. Particular attention is paid on social problems, such as those mentioned previously (academic achievement and socioeconomic status), how they affect a young person’s life, and current formal (justice system) and informal (community programming) strategies.
Peer mentoring can be a constructive and effective tool for connecting youth from a variety of backgrounds and personal experiences together. For the purposes of this project, the idea was connecting UHD student mentors with these young men to engage in meaningful conversations related to high school completion and the successful transition to a university or college. Ideally, the mentoring is structured around some sort of activity or event, to help facilitate conversation and encourage the constructive use of time.
The UHD student mentors will be on-site Monday through Thursday working alongside the young men as they participate in their after-school activities such as karate, chess camp, robotics, photography, music, theatre, and game design. The UHD student mentors will also work on designing their own presentation to occur late November on the art, danger, and etiquette of social media. Teaching about the possible ramifications of sharing too much information, inappropriate pictures, posts, and tags.
This service-learning project will culminate in an exciting event, a visit to the University of Houston-Downtown. The young men will arrive to UHD at the end of the school day and participate in a campus tour provided by the Office of Admissions and Student Ambassadors, as well as a group activity at the Sports & Fitness Center. The young men will then go to dinner where they will meet with Dr. Jerry Wallace and his Men of L.E.G.A.C.I mentees to learn about the resources UHD has to assist them in transitioning from high school to college. Also present will be UHD President, Dr. Juan Sánchez Muñoz; Dean of the College of Public Service, Dr. Leigh Van Horn; and the Director of Center for Public Service and Community Research, Mr. Steven Villano. The young men will also have the opportunity to engage in a classroom experience, stopping by an ongoing class for a few minutes before departing back home.
For more information:
Jerry Wallace PhD
Nina Barbieri, PhD
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice