The McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research located within New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, in collaboration with the Center for Collaborative inner-city Child mental health services Research (CCCR) at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine has developed STEP-UP, a program designed by African-American and Latino adolescents (14 to 17 years of age) experiencing significant academic, social and emotional issues for teens in similar circumstances. In partnership with two New York City high schools, STEP-UP was designed to connect young people with mental health clinical supports, positive young adult role models, supported internships, employment opportunities and non-stigmatizing family-level interventions. The ultimate goal of STEP-UP is to offer intensive programming for young people within their natural contexts (home, school and community) in order to organize supports geared towards high school graduation, college preparedness and eventual employment success.
African American and Latino youth who reside in inner-city communities are at heightened risk for compromised mental health and an ongoing life in poverty, as their neighborhoods are too often associated with serious stressors, including substance abuse, community violence, as well as scarce youth-supportive resources and mental health care options. Many aspects of disadvantaged urban contexts have the potential to thwart successful youth development and perpetuate poverty. STEP-UP both acknowledges these obstacles, but also recognizes that teens can take advantage of course correcting opportunities if there are positive opportunities for engagement and input, multiple supports accompanied by “real world” experience and relevant service models. Clinical supervisor Gisselle Pardo said, “I think a lot of people have a pre-conceived idea of what adolescents look like, however if they spent time in one of our groups at STEP-UP they would find respectful, insightful, and intelligent youth who are resilient.”
Components of STEP-UP include opportunities to participate in: (1) youth group board meetings centered on a life skills curriculum by teens; (2) One-on-One meetings between diverse STEP-UP staff and youth; (3) incentives tied to academic achievements; (4) trips and retreats; and (5) summer internships. Collectively these components build life skills, promote positive youth development, identify and address individual student needs, and sustain engagement via opportunities for interaction with peers and staff throughout the program.
The Step-Up team consists of social workers (LCSW and MSW), public health professionals (MPH), social work and public health graduate interns, and youth and parent specialists. The youth and parent specialist integrate their “real world” strategies for success with the extensive training they receive on youth development and group facilitation. In addition, Step-Up tries to include key school staff members and family members as an essential part of the collaborative planning and implementation teams. This dynamic team approach aims to engage and foster positive relationships across various youth contexts by connecting with youth, families, and schools to tackle mental health and risk-related challenges, while promoting positive youth development and cultural sensitivity.
Involvement at various ecological levels (individual, family, community), across multiple contexts (schools, homes, youth group) with various partners (youth, One-on-Ones, parents/caregivers, teachers, school staff, clinicians) is critical. Step-Up outcomes suggest that models that are partnership-based and comprised of blended teams of clinicians and non-clinicians, including target populations, can increase engagement in mental health services for youth and improve life skills that are applicable to academic and employment success leading towards the development of assets and overcoming poverty.
The program has served over 100 high school students in poverty-impacted schools and communities in East Harlem and the Bronx over the last three years.