JOLIET – Marissa Gonzalez wasn’t someone she wanted to be in her freshman year at Joliet West High School.
She said that was a time when she was struggling academically and having issues at home. She didn’t care about school and wanted attention from the wrong people. But with the help of a counselor from an intervention program at her school, she was able to turn her life around.
Gonzalez never saw herself as a college-bound student in high school but she now attends Joliet Junior College. She still keeps in touch with the counselor who supported her.
“She would challenge me back, which was really cool,” Gonzalez said. “I doubted myself a lot and she helped me build my confidence back. She showed me, ‘Hey, you can be a different person. You don’t have to let your past affect your future.’ ”
The Youth Experiencing Success in School intervention program that has helped Gonzalez and hundreds of other students with emotional and social problems at Joliet Township High School District 204 in the past 10 years, faced possible elimination before the school year began.
But district and Will County officials have saved it in the short term. Now they are working on preserving the program that gives immediate assistance to students facing emotional or mental health challenges in the long run.
Need for YESS
The need for the YESS program at District 204 was evident in 2005 when it began, after district officials secured a federal grant for almost $1 million.
At an Aug. 5 meeting about YESS, district officials said there were 336 incidents of fighting and 338 assaults in 2005.
“There wasn’t even any time to intervene to speak with the families because an incident would already occur,” said Jenine Barnes, a district pupil personnel service coordinator and YESS director. “I remember a time when there were three fights in a five-minute passing period.”
The number of expulsions was high at 110 in 2005 and Barnes recalled being involved in 15 expulsion hearings in one month. District officials would hear from families that the students being kicked out were not given enough support, she said.
The schools and staff realized students were not receiving social emotional services and had barriers to mental health treatment, such as financial limitations and distance from agencies that could assist them.
With the development of the YESS program, school officials partnered with 15 social service agencies, local government offices and health centers to help students with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and violence.
“One of the wonderful things being on-site is that we are able to see the kids really quickly without disruption to their school day, without disruption to their lives. They are able to come in and get their issues resolved,” said Michelle Zambrano, YESS program manager.
Even after federal funding ran out and several partner agencies either stopped in-school services or reduced them, the district was able to keep the program going.
Compared to 2005, the school climate changed in 2014, with only 104 incidents of fighting and 248 incidents of assault, district officials said. Expulsions were also down to 36.
District officials said they needed $100,000 to support YESS staff in the short term while finding ways over the school year to fund the program in the long term. The program was almost eliminated before the school year because the Will County Health Department – under the strain of state funding cuts – could not provide staff support.
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, whose office has been involved with YESS since its inception, pledged $10,000 in forfeiture money to the program Aug. 5. He said if students didn’t receive intervention from the program, the “social cost is enormous.”
Superintendent Cheryl McCarthy also made the case for YESS at an Aug. 19 Will County Board of Health meeting, where members said they would like to support the program and found money in the budget to complete the funding gap.
Joseph Troiani, a Will County behavioral health programs director, later said the YESS program would continue with reduced staff hours.
The district and health department will look at grant and other funding opportunities over the school year in order to keep the program going. At the Aug. 19 meeting, Troiani said YESS is a program that saves lives.
For Gonzalez, who still is friends with her counselor after graduating, the program has changed her life. Her counselor, Zambrano, was her reassurance whenever she was in doubt, she said.
“I would sit down and say ‘Michelle, I can’t do it anymore, I’m done. It’s too much for me,’” Gonzalez said. “She’d sit there and laugh at me. ‘Are you really done?’ No, I’m not done.”
YESS impact on District 204 climate
2005 student disciplinary incidents
2014 student disciplinary incidents
Source: Joliet Township High School District 204