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Program aims to redirect youth away from violence

The Sims-Fayola Foundation asked schools to identify their hardest-to-serve students so its coaches can focus efforts to teach social and emotional learning.

DENVER — A program within some Denver Public Schools aims to prevent youth from turning to violence by focusing on social-emotional learning for high-risk students starting as young as the fourth grade.

The program, an offering of the private Sims-Fayola Foundation, asks schools to identify their "hardest to serve" young men – particularly young men of color. "Hardest to serve" is typically defined as those with high truancy, discipline referrals or suspension rates.

"These young men are brilliant, and they don’t wake up in the morning wanting to fail, but something has happened," said Dedrick Sims, the foundation's CEO. "Our program is designed to figure out what that is and to allow them to see their futures like they see it in their dreams."

The once-a-week classes teach social and emotional learning with the goal of empowering students and showing them positive influences.

"It shows them how to build community," Sims said. "It shows them how to solve conflict. It practices those things that they need in the community.

"We call them kings. We call them young princes. We affirm them every day," Sims said. "They may or may not get that outside of school or may or may not get that outside of this classroom."

The foundation said it sees a 60% decrease in truancy, disciplinary referrals and suspension rates among program participants.

"Sometimes the education system doesn’t understand some of the impacts that their environment has on them and how it affects them in school," said Jeffery Bolling, president of the foundation's board. "Once they’re understood, they can be reached. And once they're reached, they can make an impact in the community."

The impact on the community is one reason DPS continues to contract with Sims-Fayola, said Angelin Thompson, director of DPS extended academic learning.

"I've seen what it can do for kids for years now, so I will continue to be a fan," Thompson said.

"Programs like Sims-Fayola help kids learn how to manage their emotions, how to find positive outlets, how to be more creative so that they don’t have to look for all of that positive reinforcement in the streets," she said.

Thompson said the program fits well into the district's push to promote Black excellence and its efforts to keep kids out of trouble.

"We have to do better," she said. "And it’s the responsibility of our community to do better for our kids, and Sims-Fayola is one of those ways that we are doing better for our kids."

The program also offers training for the teachers at the schools in which it operates, with the goal of continuing affirmation and cultural competency beyond the one-day-a-week class. 

"It’s not just about the kids," Bolling said. "It’s about who is working with the kids, too."

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