School district-wide program to “LIFT” up underserved families officially launches

Local News

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA)– With the cut of a ribbon, former Novak Academy was officially designated as a safe space for students and their families Thursday evening.

It’s the new headquarters for LIFT Champaign.

The program’s director Katina Wilcher says LIFT began over a month ago as planned. Thursday’s event was just the celebration among city leaders and school district staff, who started planning this three years ago.

Lyrics from the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” filled the air outside the building, sung by a Centennial High School student. It’s a song that is often referred to as the Black national anthem and it was the foundation on which the program was built, according to Deputy City Manager Joan Walls.

LIFT stands for “Leading Individuals and Families to Transformation.” Walls and other city and school district leaders have said it’s all about lifting up students and families that have been marginalized, something that the numbers show has particularly impacted schooling, and social and emotional health, for Black children in Champaign.

LIFT staff has identified 69 families who would benefit most based on data, like attendance records, grades and behavior, according to Angela Ward. She is Champaign Unit 4 School District’s Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Engagement.

So, what services does the program offer for families?

“Some families may need parental guidance as far as workshops and how to do this thing called school-and-work-and-life balance,” Ward responded. “Other families may need tutoring support, some families may need access to health and medical care.”

The program is not mandatory, Ward said.

“The wrap-around is culturally responsive, [for] one, it’s determined by the family. They make the decisions,” she added.

Ward told us the program won’t look the same from one family to another.

“If they need to be here every day, then that’s what we’ll do. If it’s once a month, then that’s exactly how we will respond,” she explained, adding if the service a family needs isn’t a specialty of LIFT staff, they’ll bring in those resources as needed.

When the city unanimously approved the program in May, it was discussed alongside gun violence solutions. Ward said LIFT was not created to react to the violence.

Instead, she described it as “a proactive approach to finding, who are the people who are struggling to be their best selves? And, how can we get in front of that?”

“Because when you get to gun violence what you’re seeing is the end result of no solutions,” she explained further.

Anthony Sullers Jr., a teaching assistant and graduate assessment coordinator for the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois, was able to explain the continued marginalizations of Black youth with sheer numbers.

“In the total number of arrests in the last 5-6 years, a large majority of them have been identified as African American, Black citizens in the City of Champaign,” he shared.

Sullers said bout 55% of those arrests were Black children between the ages of 4 and 17.

He said he believes LIFT will bring about change.

“Programs that are intentional do a significant job because sometimes it offers the gleam of change that most people don’t even think exists,” he elaborated.

Sullers is also leading up the effort to track data to measure the success of the program through the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment at the University. He said they’ll be using information from the city and school district, and soon, they’ll also start interviewing participating families to get an idea of what’s working and what could be improved.

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