A Better Chicago to grant $7M targeting mental health for CPS students recovering from pandemic learning loss

On Tuesday the local venture philanthropy fund A Better Chicago will announce grants to seven groups targeting COVID-19 learning deficits impacting Chicago Public Schools students.

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Bessie Alcantara, Executive Director of Alternatives, Inc., stands inside Alternatives Uptown location, Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Bessie Alcantara, executive director of Alternatives, Inc., stands inside the organization’s Uptown location on Monday. Alternatives is among seven organizations that will receive more than $7 million in grants from A Better Chicago.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A month into the third school year rocked by COVID-19, a local venture philanthropy fund Tuesday will announce more than $7 million in grants targeting the COVID-19 learning deficits impacting Chicago Public Schools students — by focusing on their mental health.

The unique grants arise from A Better Chicago’s Chicago Design Challenge, seeking innovations with potential to accelerate learning recovery and promote mental health among CPS students, as Chicago and the nation struggle with education amid COVID.

In a survey of 1,500 parents from all 77 Chicago communities, 44% reported their children experienced increased symptoms of mental or behavioral health disorders during the pandemic, and 18% reported an inability to access mental health services, according to a recent report by Lurie Children’s Hospital.


At the same time, studies show there were vast learning deficits triggered by remote learning.

Nationwide, students in first through sixth grades fell four months behind in reading by the end of last school year, a McKinsey and Company report found. And the U.S. Department of Education reported late elementary and early middle school students are roughly six to 10 weeks behind in reading aptitude expectations.

“The pandemic exacerbated systemic inequities that already existed in our city and country. This manifested in the education space as disparities in school funding for quality remote learning and safe return, as well as at-home access to high-speed internet and devices,” said Marshana Roberts Pace, director of investment at A Better Chicago.

“The COVID pandemic has also resulted in detrimental social-emotional impacts on Chicago’s youth that could threaten their achievements later in life.”

The challenge, a collaboration with The University of Chicago Education Lab and The Chicago Public Education Fund, was framed against findings from last year’s Mapping COVID-19 Recovery Project.


Marshana Roberts Pace, director of investment, A Better Chicago.

Provided/A Better Chicago

That Field Foundation-led collaboration of 25 prominent Chicago philanthropic and civic entities for the first time unveiled where public, private and philanthropic sector investments had been going — or not going — in COVID-devastated BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities in Chicago and Cook County.

“Our efforts through the Mapping Project produced crucial data that helped us ensure we’re directing resources to populations and communities most in need,” Pace said of the seven winners of the multiyear grants, which were whittled from more than 110 proposals.

Grantees include Alternatives, Inc.; Chicago HOPES for Kids; Juvenile Protective Association; Leading Educators; Lion’s Pride Mentoring; VOCEL (Viewing Our Children as Emerging Leaders); and Roosevelt University. The groups are targeting students from early learners to high school, and populations from English as Second Language learners to homeless students.

“This is super exciting. We want to build capacity so that schools can work without us,” Executive Director Bessie Alcantara said of Alternatives’ $450,000 grant to bring its Systemic Evaluation, Enhancement and Institutional Training (SEEIT) program to 10 schools.

Currently in four schools, SEEIT involves evaluating a whole school and tailoring resources.


Jasmine Gilstrap, co-founder and executive director, Lion’s Pride.

Provided/Taylor LaRue

“We’re looking at everything from the behavioral health resources you have or don’t have in the building, to your process in place for kids with behavioral issues. We assess teachers, then the young people. A lot of youth are referred to services once they act out. It’s about how do we catch those things before they happen?” Alcantara said.

A $475,000 grant will help Lion’s Pride expand its unique mentoring program, now in three schools, to five. The program supports high school freshmen, pairing them with juniors and seniors who get leadership training.

“The transition from grammar school to high school is always a difficult adjustment, even in a ‘normal’ year,” co-founder and Executive Director Jasmine Gilstrap said.

“Providing additional support to ninth graders during this return to school and adjusting to this new normal is more important than ever. The combination of peer support and social emotional learning will help support this class of ninth graders to thrive, despite the challenges they have faced the past year and a half.”

The ultimate goal is to help each organizations fine-tune their programs for future scaling to reach hundreds of thousands of students, through CPS and city of Chicago funding.


Karen Foley, executive director, Juvenile Protective Association.


At the Juvenile Protective Association (JPA), a $950,000 grant will scale its 8-year-old Connect to Kids (C2K) program. Currently in 10 schools, C2K provides teachers with weekly social and emotional learning consultation throughout the school year.

“We don’t just need child development. We need adult development. Our therapists are helping the adults build their own social emotional capacity, along with a toolkit and techniques,” Executive Director Karen Foley said.

“If we can help a teacher understand what’s underneath the behavior of that child, in almost all cases, the more effective they can be in supporting the need of their students.”

Of teachers in the program, 92% report a positive impact on their classroom environment, and 7 of 10 report lower stress levels.

“Kids are not the only ones reeling from the past 18 months — so many teachers also feel burned out, and have lost close family members and friends to this terrible virus. First the adults have to put on their own oxygen masks if we want them to then help the children.”

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