Project S.O.A.R. mentors are strategizing to help young Chicago Housing Authority residents find path to success

June 1, 2018 03:11 PM

Press contacts:
Office of Communications – Chicago Housing Authority
Molly Sullivan: (312) 786-3344;
Matthew Aguilar: (312) 935-2646;

CHICAGO (June 1, 2018) - A year after takeoff, Project S.O.A.R. students are reaching great heights.

A tutorial and mentorship program, Project S.O.A.R. (Students Opportunities Achievements Results) is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). It allows public housing residents ages 15-20 to receive one-on-one coaching to support post-high school plans or post-secondary enrollment. And it has experienced upward trajectory: the program has more than 150 active student participants, and has had over 350 in-person sessions with students. And the list continues to grow.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said CHA Education Specialist Cassie Brooks. “At CHA, we have a variety of education supports, but the opportunity to add in college counseling and one-on-one support for our youth is going to be a game-changer.”

Project S.O.A.R. is just one part of CHA’s overall efforts to help residents achieve their college goals. Those efforts also include the CHA Scholarship Program, which awarded 235 college students attending 105 universities nationwide $265,000 in scholarships last year; and Partners in Education that supports residents attending City Colleges with tuition, books and fees, and saw 89 students earn associate degrees last year – the most ever. As a result of these programs, more than 7,500 CHA residents are enrolled in colleges across the country. Further, CHA residents have received 2,417 college degrees in 2016 and ’17. And over the past five years, more than 80 percent of students receiving a CHA Scholarship remained enrolled or have graduated.

CHA’s three mentors - called "Education Navigators" -  help participants complete college and scholarship applications, save money, identify schools and generally stay on the path toward graduation. They also take the students on tours of local college campuses and arrange visits with other students.

Since most participants are new to the college arena, guidance and direction are paramount.

“The majority of our students are first-generation college students,” said Education Navigator Symphoni Henry. “So, for us, it gives us an opportunity to work with them and make sure they have access to the same resources that other students who may have had someone in their family go to college.”

As S.O.A.R. students attend over 109 different public schools in Chicago, outreach strategies directed at the 18 selected CHA properties have been vital. Navigators have to be savvy about how - and where - to connect with youth and families from their caseloads.

"By holding regular office hours in the Computer Lab at Dearborn Homes, I have been able to connect with many students, including students interested in business and entrepreneurship” said CHA Education Navigator Grant Vitale. “I have been counseling students on post-secondary opportunities that align with their interests. And also letting students know about our Partners in Education program, where they can earn an associate degree at the Chicago City Colleges, and then transfer to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor's degree."

Henry said she has made much progress through connections with Centers for New Horizons, a provider in CHA’s Case Management program with a strong presence in the Bronzeville community; and staging collaborative events like the CNH Oktoberfest Festival, Teen Valentine’s Day Dance, and Decision Day Bowling event.

“These youth-focused events provided an opportunity for me to enroll students in the SOAR program, sign students up for events and college tours, and connect parents to college counseling resources,” Henry said. “Additionally, the collaboration has allowed me to reach a strong percentage of my S.O.A.R. caseload through door-to-door outreach, event engagement, and parent interactions."

Education Navigator, Ashley Thompson said meeting students 'where they are' is one of the most important roles of being an Education Navigator.

“In creating spaces to interact with youth and families, there must be flexibility in time and location. One of the best practices I’ve done to meet youth is by attending community events to spark general conversations about college. One of my partners, Near West Side Community Development Corporation, hosted a basketball tournament for youth. Throughout the event, I had a chance to support the guys playing in the games, but also talk with them about exploring college & the processes related to being a college athlete. Attending community events are important to create visibility among families and youth impacting.”

The Navigators have made an impact, participants said.

“Having a navigator is making such a huge difference,” said Zakia, a S.O.A.R. participant. “Because I’m older – I’m 20 – (they) are helping me get into college. I’ve never been to college before. And she helped me apply for scholarships.”

S.O.A.R. participant Shekinah agreed: “In my school, we only have one counselor. So I have better access, individually, one-on-one, versus having to compete with other people to get my counselor’s attention.”

See how effective Education Navigators can be as students tell their S.O.A.R. experiences in this video