At the University of Chicago Crime Lab, researchers set out to test the results of an anti-violence mentoring and sports program with the same strategy that scientists use to test whether a new drug works: by choosing a random group of similar subjects and placing some in the program while leaving others to fare on their own.

The results were encouraging but also sobering. The young men who participated in the Becoming a Man-World Sports program were 44 percent less likely to commit a crime than those not in it. But when they left the program the following year, the gap between the two groups narrowed and the young men from the program were almost as likely to commit crimes as the youth who did not participate.

Even so, the participants continued to have better school attendance and grades after they left the program, according to the study.

Becoming a Man-Sports Edition provides young men with group and individual therapy in school, and an after-school program in which they learn Olympic sports such as rugby. The therapy teaches them how to be less impulsive and how to manage their emotions.

“It is not a panacea,” said Jens Ludwig, the director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. However, he stressed that reducing crime among youth, even for a year, is important and noted that the program could have a lasting effect if sustained long-term.

Yet, for CPS, sustaining programs and keeping the same participants, year over year, has proven to be nearly impossible.   

Ludwig announced the results of the study at Harper High School in Englewood, where 27 current or former students have been shot this year, eight of them killed. Harper was one of 18 schools that participated in the program, but, once the study was over, the staff and the program were scaled back.

Other mentor programs have suffered the same fate, most notably those funded through the now-defunct Culture of Calm initiative, which was announced in 2009 as a $60 million initiative to focus on those students most at-risk of being shot. Becoming a Man received some Culture of Calm money, as did other mentoring programs. Yet they have lost funding each year, and CPS officials admit that this year, the mentoring programs will take another hit. CPS Safety and Security Chief Officer Jadine Chou said the district has had to prioritize.

But Ludwig points out that the Becoming A Man-Sports Edition only costs $1,100 a year per participant and he says Chicago could find the money to support it if it wanted to.

Measures of success

While the University of Chicago researchers talked about the statistical significance of the program, principals, program leaders and a student were on hand to talk about what they have seen and experienced.

Coming into the program, 16-year-old Kintay Owens said he “didn’t really care about anything.” But his mentor helped him set goals and have respect for women. He wants to either be a professional baseball player, a rapper or go into the Navy.

“I can carry these things on into my life,” he said.

Harper Principal Leonetta Sanders said she has seen a change in the students who participated. “If I could get all my students into the program, I would do it,” she said. “I have seen a change.”

Louis Wright ran the Becoming A Man program at Austin Polytech during the study and now is at Douglass High School, also on the West Side. Wright has been working as a school counselor for decades and says the unusual thing about the program is that they were assigned students, rather than having them chosen by teachers or volunteer.

All the students who were part of the random sample were chosen because they had bad grades and poor school attendance, according to researchers. Wright said somehow, one or two “nerds” made it into the group, as did a lot of young men with problems.

“Six of my students had already been arrested and a few were wearing ankle bracelets,” he said.

All of them benefited from being in the group, he said. One example of how they matured is that seven of the 20 showed up this spring break to make up homework.

“How do you measure a program?” he said. “When you see young men stand up and do what they need to do, that is a measure.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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