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The secret sauce for preventing youth violence

Updated: September 9, 2013 7:43AM

Give a kid a summer job.

Give a kid a mentor.

Give a kid extra social skills to help him navigate the world of work and school.

A winning combination for kids from high-crime, poor Chicago neighborhoods?

The answer is a resounding yes, yielding one of the best anti-violence efforts we can dream up, a new University of Chicago Crime Lab study says.

As folks in the neighborhoods have long said — and we’ve long believed — violence reduction is not simply about more cops and fewer guns. It’s also about a chance to build a better life.

Seven months after 730 eighth- through 12th-graders completed a 2012 summer jobs program that included those core elements, the teens experienced a dramatic drop in arrests. Compared to similar kids who applied to the city-run program but didn’t get in, the Chicago public school teens in the program saw a 51 percent drop in violent-crime arrests.

The researcher who evaluated the One Summer Plus program described this as an “enormous” decrease — a word academics do not use lightly.

Critics often dismiss summer jobs programs as a waste of money, particularly if the goal is violence prevention. This is partly rooted in a far too common writing off of “those kids.” But it’s also rooted in the reality of research. Despite spending millions on summer jobs programs, there’s little quality research on the topic, and what little is out doesn’t paint a convincing picture of job programs’ effects, especially on crime.

Until now.

And that was by design. This program, created by the city Department of Family and Support Services, was carefully crafted to give all kids what researchers know they need to succeed: social skills and support.

A job is big help. But a job plus mentoring and training — in how to manage conflicts, how to think before you act, how to control impulses — is what appears to make a lasting impact.

Just ask Saviahn Irons. The 18-year-old Roseland native had a long arrest record before he joined the program last summer. Irons linked up with a mentor who still counsels him and learned some forward-thinking skills he says kept him from blowing off his senior year. In a few weeks, Irons will head to Southern Illinois University, the first in his family to go to college.

“I used to think that all we’d ever be is statistics, that we’d all get locked up,” Irons told us. “Now, I think all you need is an opportunity. I’ll find a way out, but others need that chance too.”

For the advocates of this kind of approach — called “social-emotional learning” in education circles — none of this is a surprise. Researchers have long known that an emphasis on social skills in schools yields impressive gains in classroom performance and school culture. This approach, thankfully, is finally taking root in the Chicago public schools, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel stuck with it again this summer. The city expanded One Summer Plus program this year and targeted an even more difficult population.

But SEL programs can be expensive, making it often the first thing to be cut. The summer program, for example, costs $3,000 per student.

Compare that to the alternative — far more money down the drain on prisons and the courts — and the right choice is clear.

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