All kids need just one person who wants to find out what their dream is in life and then help them get there.

Frances Kraft remembers hearing that sentence spoken by Ron Ferguson, an economist who researches the achievement gap, during a conference she attended at Harvard University in 2013. And it now informs a lot of the work she does every day in Oak Park.

A teacher and education advocate who organized the student support coalition called the E-Team, Kraft says Ferguson calls the statement the “north star.” 

After she heard Ferguson frame it that way, she returned to Oak Park and started asking teenagers, “What’s the number one thing you need in life?” By far, the teens told her that they needed just one person, an adult, who wants to take time to find out what their dreams are.

Using that insight, the E-Team works to build personal relationships with the student, Kraft says. She points to an OPRF freshman currently in the tutoring program that she co-leads at the Oak Park Library, as an example of how the E-Team creates a “safe space” for students to ask for help. This particular student has a very supportive family, she says, but didn’t connect with his teachers. It took him months to open up. “It’s not like it’s one (adult) he’s got a relationship with, now it’s several people. We’re trying to create a family there.

In both Oak Park and River Forest, it’s a community norm for youth to have more than one adult with whom they can talk about important things in their life, the 2016 Illinois Youth Survey found. A solid majority of youth in grades 8, 10 and 12 who took the survey said they have at least one adult with whom they can talk about life issues, although the percentages drop for students in higher grades.

Caring non-parental adults aren’t always teachers. They can be coaches or mentors, even a neighbor. The roles they serve are invaluable. They can give advice, ease anxieties about academics and other relationships, write recommendations, be that older friend who possesses the wisdom younger people have not gained.

Sports and arts activities are often the easiest routes through which young people encounter adults with whom they can develop comfortable and positive relationships. 

James Foster, who has run the Impact Basketball program in Oak Park since 2000, does “mentorship through basketball.” About 200 kids a year go through the program, which also assists with tutoring and scholarships.

He subscribes to the “it takes a village” approach to inspire young people. “It takes more than just parents,” he says. “These days, it has to be a joint effort” that involves other committed adults.

Friends of the Children is an organization with a lot of Oak Park support that will  launch soon in the Austin neighborhood. It takes a more intensive approach to connecting adults and children. The non-profit started in Portland 25 years ago, and pairs at-risk kids starting in kindergarten with paid professional adult mentors, called Friends, who make at least a three-year commitment to be involved in the child’s life. 

“We know if someone stays with a child for less than a year and a half, that can actually do more harm than good,” says Taal Hasak-Lowy, executive director for Friends of the Children’s Chicago Chapter. “Research has shown that the single most important factor for building resiliency in children who faced the highest risk is a long-term, consistent relationship with a caring adult.”

Action Item:

“Excellence with Equity,” also known as the E-Team, just won a $50,000 grant to grow the program. The funding came from “The Big Idea,” a program of Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy, a part of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation. The money is raised each year from some 40 local business people.

SAY Connect is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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