School-based counseling and mentoring programs: Kansas City, MO/KS

At-a-Glance

Summary

  • Kansas City has long struggled with high rates of violent crime. As in other cities, these high levels of violence disproportionately impacted young people. At the same time, the recent national increase in mental health symptoms among adolescents was reflected in Kansas City, with students reporting difficulty navigating challenges at home and in school. With so many students impacted by violence and mental health issues, support services in Kansas City were strained, leaving young people with unmet needs.
  • In response, local leaders from the GreenLight Fund and other civic organizations secured a commitment from Youth Guidance, a Chicago-based nonprofit, to expand their Becoming a Man (BAM) and Working on Womanhood (WOW) programs to Kansas City. BAM and WOW are school-based group counseling and mentoring programs for students in grades 6-12. Both programs are led by counselors, who work full-time in schools, delivering clinically-based individual and group services to students. 
  • Keys to the programs' success included strong partnerships with school districts; the initial financial backing of the GreenLight Fund; support from local leaders, including Mayor Quinton Lucas' office; and the careful selection and training of counselors.
  • Obstacles faced by Youth Guidance included navigating a fragmented educational landscape, building trust with local stakeholders, differentiating from similar programs, and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Results and accomplishments

73%


In a pre-post assessment, 73 percent of BAM students in Kansas City showed gains in social-emotional skills.

79%


In a pre-post assessment, 79 percent of WOW participants in Kansas City who tested within the clinical range for depression demonstrated improvement in symptoms after participating in the program.

50%


In a randomized controlled trial conducted in Chicago, participants in BAM were 50 percent less likely to be arrested for a violent crime than members of the control group.

  • The first expansion of both BAM and WOW: In 2020, Youth Guidance selected Kansas City as the first region in the country to host an expansion of both the Becoming a Man (BAM) and Working on Womanhood (WOW) programs. While Youth Guidance had previously expanded BAM outside of Chicago, Kansas City became WOW’s first expansion site. This move represented Youth Guidance’s commitment to serving both the area’s young men and young women.

  • Preliminary results show student growth: A preliminary impact report for the 2021-2022 school year showed that the majority of WOW participants reported fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety than at the start of the school year. Nearly three-quarters of BAM participants, in turn, showed significant improvement in social-emotional skills.

  • Earning government and philanthropic support: Since Youth Guidance launched BAM and WOW in Kansas City, its positive reception in area schools has attracted additional funders. This has resulted in significant support from local government entities, like the City of Kansas City and Jackson County, as well as philanthropic partners, like the Health Forward Foundation and Argosy Foundation.

  • Expanding within the KC region: Following the success of BAM and WOW in the Hickman Mills C-1 School District, Youth Guidance partnered with the Kansas City Kansas Public School District and the Center School District to bring BAM and WOW to four additional schools during the 2022-2023 school year. These expansions have allowed Youth Guidance to serve approximately 420 additional students.

  • Winning awards for their impact: Since 2020, Youth Guidance Kansas City has received three local awards recognizing their impact on area youth. These include the South KC Chamber Impact Award, the South KC Chamber Big Impact Award, and the South KC Alliance for Outstanding Programming.

  • Receiving wide-spread recognition: BAM sites across the country have received wide-spread recognition for their effectiveness and impact from the popular press, political leaders, and the philanthropic community. WOW has also been recognized in articles from the Kansas City Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Politico, and more.

Ready to learn more?

Complete the form to receive unrestricted access to the Economic Mobility Catalog's case studies.

Overview

What was the challenge?

  • High rates of violence persist in Kansas City: Kansas City has long struggled with high rates of violent crime. Between 2019 and 2020, the city’s murder rate increased by 16 percent to 30.9 per 100,000 residents - well above the national rate of 7.5 per 100,000.

  • Violence impacts young people: In Kansas City, as throughout the country, high levels of violence disproportionately impacted young people. Such violence was not evenly distributed throughout the city, however. Neighborhoods with high rates of poverty bore the brunt of the violence.

  • Youth face a mental health crisis: Nearly one in seven adolescents in the United States have depression, and more than one in three have an anxiety disorder. The recent national increase in mental health symptoms among adolescents was reflected in Kansas City, where local leaders heard from young people about their struggles navigating challenges at home and school.

  • Insufficient support for impacted students: With so many students in the Kansas City area impacted by violence and mental health issues, support services were strained. Students often struggled to access culturally-competent counseling and mental health services, leaving them with unmet needs. These challenges caused area school districts to search for strategies to further support their students’ social-emotional health.

  • Limited school-based anti-violence efforts: While Kansas City had existing anti-violence initiatives, few of these programs operated within schools. As a result, community leaders saw the potential for a school-based anti-violence program to more effectively tackle the city’s high levels of violence.

What was the solution?

  • Providing school-based support for at-risk students: In light of challenges with violence and mental health among youth, local leaders decided to partner with Youth Guidance to bring its Becoming A Man (BAM) and Working On Womanhood (WOW) programs in Kansas City. These programs are school-based group counseling and mentoring programs for students in grades 6-12. BAM and WOW counselors work full-time in schools, delivering clinically-based individual and group services to at-risk students.

  • Centered around weekly group counseling sessions: In both BAM and WOW, students participate in weekly group counseling sessions, which are called BAM and WOW “Circles.” These sessions are held at school, last approximately 50 minutes each, and take place throughout the school year. During these sessions, counselors guide students through lessons designed to help them build social-emotional skills that are foundational to personal and academic success.

  • Using a clinically-based, value-aligned curriculum: The curricula that structure BAM and WOW group sessions are informed by evidence-based clinical strategies, like cognitive-behavioral, acceptance-commitment, and narrative therapy. Each program also emphasizes a set of core values, which represent traits and skills that participants develop. BAM’s core values are integrity, accountability, self-determination, respect for womanhood, visionary goal-setting, and positive anger expression. WOW, in turn, focuses on self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, leadership, and visionary goal-setting.

  • Offering additional support to students and staff: In addition to group sessions, BAM and WOW counselors conduct brief one-on-one sessions with students throughout the school day. Counselors also develop close working relationships with teachers, serving as a resource when addressing students’ needs. Less formally, counselors regularly walk hallways, sit in on classes, and attend students’ extracurricular activities, allowing them to build relationships throughout their school building.

What factors drove success?

  • Strong partnerships with school districts: As Youth Guidance expanded into the Kansas City region, it searched for school districts with a strong interest in collaboration. Support from superintendents and other senior leaders in Hickman Mills C-1 Schools and Kansas City Kansas Public Schools eased the implementation of BAM and WOW into their schools. The support ensured that district staff understood the counselors’ roles and that counselors had access to dedicated space and were integrated into the schools’ culture.

  • Initial financial backing from GreenLight Fund: The GreenLight Fund’s initial $600,000 commitment strengthened Youth Guidance’s proposal for an expansion into Kansas City. With a significant portion of start-up costs already covered, local leaders saw a clearer path to launching BAM and WOW in area schools. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, opportunities for additional funding from local government and philanthropic sources disappeared. In response, GreenLight doubled its initial commitment to $1.2 million. This additional support ensured that Youth Guidance could proceed with its expansion into Kansas City despite the onset of COVID-19.

  • Local leadership builds trust: As a Chicago-based nonprofit, Youth Guidance needed to establish trust with local leaders to successfully launch in Kansas City. A key step in building that trust was selecting Garrett Webster, a local leader with deep ties to Kansas City’s education sector, as executive director for the region. The credibility of BAM and WOW were further strengthened by vocal support from the GreenLight Fund’s local advisory council, which consisted of leaders from across Kansas City’s nonprofit, philanthropic, and education sectors.

  • Support from the mayor’s office: Early on, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and his administration championed the expansion of the BAM and WOW programs into the Kansas City area. The mayor and AJ Herrmann, his then-Director of Policy, supported Youth Guidance by connecting them to key stakeholders, advocating for the program to receive public investment, and raising awareness of BAM and WOW in the Kansas City community.

  • Selection of effective counselors: For the BAM and WOW programs to be effective, Youth Guidance counselors need to be able to relate to students and effectively deliver the curriculum. A rigorous selection process, which includes an applicant-led mock counseling session, enabled the organization to hire particularly effective staff.

  • Providing hands-on training to ensure fidelity: Before being brought to Kansas City, BAM and WOW had been implemented in other locations for over 20 and 10 years, respectively. When expanding to Kansas City, Youth Guidance identified replication specialists, who had years of experience delivering the BAM and WOW models. These specialists led training cohorts for new counselors in Kansas City, introducing them to the relevant curriculum and providing feedback as they began delivering it.

What were the major obstacles?

  • Navigating a fragmented education landscape: The Kansas City region includes dozens of traditional public and charter school districts. This fragmentation complicated the implementation of BAM and WOW, as it required Youth Guidance to navigate a large number of decision-makers, stakeholders, funding sources, and more. This issue was further complicated by Kansas City’s position in a bi-state region, which introduced two sets of state-level stakeholders and funding mechanisms into the process.

  • Skepticism toward an “outsider” organization: Before introducing BAM and WOW, Youth Guidance had no presence in the Kansas City region. Initially, local stakeholders were skeptical about working with a nonprofit without direct ties to the region. Gradually, Youth Guidance built credibility by hiring a respected local leader as their regional executive director and leveraging support from GreenLight Fund’s local advisory council. Vocal support from the Mayor’s Office further strengthened Youth Guidance’s credibility in the region.

  • Differentiating from similar programs: Several school leaders were hesitant to commit to BAM and WOW, having seen other student support programs make limited impact. Youth Guidance's track record of success and its willingness to collect and share data were important differentiators. BAM and WOW's approach to hiring staff and its commitment to embedding staff in schools also helped convince leaders of the programs’ potential for success.

  • Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic started shortly after Youth Guidance decided to expand into the Kansas City region. The disruption caused by the pandemic meant that local funders were initially unwilling to commit to the expansion, requiring GreenLight to double its initial commitment to cover the gap. Later on, when Youth Guidance began BAM and WOW programming in HMC-1 in the Spring of 2021, the program needed to adapt to evolving safety protocols, like the introduction of a hybrid schedule.

Timeline

Implementation process

How did leaders confront the problem?

  • Violence and mental health conditions affect local youth: Kansas City had long experienced high rates of violent crime. As in other cities, this violence disproportionately impacted teenagers and young adults. This issue was compounded by increased concern over poor mental health outcomes among young people in Kansas City. Leaders had struggled to find a strategy to reduce violence and support young people experiencing mental health symptoms.

  • Local leaders search for a solution: In 2019, the Kansas City chapter of the GreenLight Fund convened its Selection Advisory Council. After identifying the need, this group of cross-sector leaders began searching for an evidence-based community violence prevention strategy.

  • Forming a partnership: Familiar with Youth Guidance from their work together in Boston, MA, GreenLight asked them to consider bringing BAM and WOW to Kansas City. As Youth Guidance began evaluating a potential expansion, GreenLight connected them to leaders in city government and area school districts to gauge local interest in BAM and WOW.

  • Gaining support from the mayor’s office: With the knowledge that Mayor Lucas's administration was interested in strategies to address violent crime, Youth Guidance approached AJ Herrmann, the Mayor's Director of Policy. Youth Guidance presented a well-designed proposal for an expansion backed by significant investment from the GreenLight Fund. Impressed by the proposal, Herrmann consulted with the Mayor and others in the administration on how to support the expansion.

  • Advocacy from Mayor Lucas: After Youth Guidance announced the expansion, Mayor Lucas began elevating the visibility of BAM and WOW in his conversations with key stakeholders and local media. The Mayor and his staff also began connecting Youth Guidance to local government entities that would later become funders, including Jackson County COMBAT and the City of Kansas City’s Health Department.

How was the strategy designed?

  • Adopting an established, evidence-based model: Before expanding to Kansas City, BAM and WOW were well-established, school-based group counseling and mentoring programs. Both models had been rigorously evaluated by external partners, like the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs and the Lurie Children’s Hospital.

  • Searching for a district partner: Youth Guidance recognized the importance of a close working relationship with school staff to the success of BAM and WOW. As such, they sought a school district partner whose needs fit the strengths of the BAM and WOW programs. By conducting sample programming for youth and educators, Youth Guidance introduced educators to BAM and WOW and began conversations with multiple school districts about a partnership.

  • Youth Guidance identifies its first district partner: After learning more about BAM and WOW, Hickman Mills C-1 (HMC-1) expressed strong interest in hosting Youth Guidance’s initial expansion into Kansas City. Youth Guidance’s approach to hiring counselors and its commitment to data collection and evaluation had won the support of HMC-1’s Superintendent Yaw Obeng. In early 2021, BAM and WOW launched in HMC-1’s Smith-Hale Middle School and Ruskin High School.

  • Embedding BAM and WOW into schools: To integrate BAM and WOW into HMC-1 schools, Youth Guidance and the district agreed to processes for data collection and sharing, outreach and student recruitment, allocating office and meeting space, and more. These details were solidified through negotiations between Youth Guidance and Superintendent Obeng, other district-level leaders, and principals from the two participating schools.

  • Hiring relatable, trustworthy counselors: All BAM and WOW programs rely on the ability of counselors to build relationships with students. In Kansas City, like other sites, Youth Guidance sought to hire counselors with experience working with youth exposed to adverse childhood experiences and whose identities reflected the students being served.

  • Processes to ensure fidelity: In Kansas City, like all new BAM and WOW sites, Youth Guidance took steps to ensure the models are replicated with fidelity. Replication specialists worked closely with new counselors, leading them through the BAM or WOW curriculum, providing them with opportunities to shadow experienced counselors, giving them feedback as they practice delivering sessions, and more.

How was the plan implemented?

  • Recruiting students to participate: With its partnership with HMC-1 in place and staff hired and trained, Youth Guidance began recruiting students to participate in BAM and WOW. Participating in either program is voluntary, so students are not required to join or attend sessions. To recruit participants, counselors sent parents information on the program and conducted outreach during parent-teacher conferences. Counselors also built students’ familiarity with BAM and WOW as they walked the halls, dropped into classrooms, attended school events, and more.

  • Starting up group sessions: As students signed up for BAM or WOW, the counselors placed them in groups of ten and began facilitating circles for each group. During these sessions, counselors guide students through lessons designed to help them build social-emotional skills that are foundational to personal and academic success.

  • Building a sense of community: For group counseling sessions to be effective, counselors need to create a “safe space,” where students are willing to be themselves. To build that strong sense of community, counselors present themselves authentically; teach students communication skills; and work to be present in students’ lives, not just during group sessions, but in the halls, in classrooms, at extracurricular activities, and more.

How was the approach funded?

  • Launching with support from GreenLight: While local funders were interested in supporting BAM and WOW, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from contributing toward Youth Guidance’s expansion into the Kansas City area. To enable the expansion to continue on schedule, GreenLight Fund doubled its initial commitment to Youth Guidance to $1.2 million.

  • Securing additional philanthropic support: As uncertainty caused by the pandemic dissipated and BAM and WOW launched in HCM-1, Youth Guidance secured additional funding from both local and national foundations. These grants were supplemented by gifts from corporate partners and area churches.

  • Local government provides funding: Jackson County’s COMBAT program, which focuses on reducing violence and substance use, was an early backer of Youth Guidance. As BAM and WOW established themselves in the region, the City of Kansas City’s Health Department and the Children's Services Fund of Jackson County began funding the programs.

How was the approach measured and refined?

  • Collecting data to measure impact: As a standard practice, when students join BAM or WOW, they take an assessment to measure their baseline psychological well-being and/or social-emotional skill development. These data allow counselors to identify students’ individual needs and connect them to appropriate resources. At the end of a school year, students are asked to take a post-test, which allows Youth Guidance to identify how participants’ skills and well-being have changed over the year.

  • Placing an emphasis on documentation: A key aspect of counselors’ jobs is to document sessions, brief encounters with students, and other services they provide to their school. This information is tracked through case management software, which allows Youth Guidance to access key pieces of data, like attendance at sessions, counselor self-assessments, and more.

  • Committing to cross-program collaboration: In addition to Kansas City, BAM and WOW now operate alongside one another in Chicago, Boston, and Dallas. While the two programs are designed to complement one another, they typically operate independently. In HMC-1, BAM and WOW counselors conduct sessions separately, but they regularly work with students in both programs. This approach has given students an additional supportive adult to use as a resource.

  • Expanding to additional school districts: After a successful first year in HMC-1, the Kansas City Kansas Public School District (KCKPS) partnered with Youth Guidance to expand BAM and WOW into three of its schools. Beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, Youth Guidance will serve more than three hundred additional KCKPS middle and high school students. In the Spring of 2022, Youth Guidance launched BAM and WOW in a single school in Center School District, with plans of serving over a hundred more students per year.

Acknowledgments

Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their support in writing this case study: Sarah Haberberger of the GreenLight Fund; Rebecca Clarkin, Garrett Webster, Anthony Purville, and Jasmin Roland of Youth Guidance; Superintendent Yaw Obeng, of the Hickman-Mills C-1 School District; and A.J. Herrmann, formerly the Director of Policy for the City of Kansas City, MO.

This case study was written by Cole Ware and Ross Tilchin.