USC, Local High School Collaborate to Foster Future Social Workers

CHAS students Marlene Isidoro, left, Gabriela Ramos and Alicia Gonzalez present a research project on bullying in their internship class.

Cynthia Lemus knows what it’s like to care for an ill, elderly family member. The emotional, physical and financial toll can be nearly unbearable.

“My grandma was really ill, and I didn’t like to see her like that,” said Lemus, an 18-year-old high school senior. “While taking care of her with my mom, I realized that other families [in my community] also go through this, or worse, and I wanted to be someone in their lives to help them out and let them know they’re not alone.”

Stories such as Lemus’ are why educators reached out to the USC School of Social Work to consult on the establishment of a Los Angeles Unified School District high school focused on providing an understanding of real-life issues and preparing students to become their community’s health care givers. The result is the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) at the Augustus Hawkins Schools for Community Action campus in South Los Angeles. Augustus Hawkins also includes schools focused on technology and social entrepreneurship, and together with CHAS, the campus provides educational experiences designed to prepare students for relevant careers in Los Angeles that would benefit the individual student and the greater community.

Having taught at other high schools in the area, CHAS’s founding teachers, including Patricia Hanson, realized that many of their students had experienced some kind of trauma in their lives – such as being in the foster care system, domestic violence or gang problems – that led to mental health issues.

“We saw how many of our students had experienced traumatic events, and they don’t always go to an adult [to seek help]; they go to each other. So we wanted students to understand and identify signs of trauma within themselves or those around them,” Hanson said. “We also wanted to set students up with a professional skill set and give them a real career path into college [that they could] bring back to their community and in their daily lives.”

CHAS’s mission is to nurture, empower and inspire the future social workers and community health advocates of South Los Angeles, as well as to groom the next generation of transformative leaders locally and globally. With these goals in mind, Hanson and fellow teacher Erica Ramirez, who were working at Manual Arts High School at the time, reached out to Marleen Wong, clinical professor at the USC School of Social Work and an expert in crisis intervention and trauma response, for guidance in writing the proposal to the school district. Wong, who is the former director of mental health services, crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LAUSD, found the idea for CHAS lined up nicely with the community outreach goals of the School of Social Work.

“There’s often a disconnect between people investigating child abuse and the affected families,” Wong said. “These kids interact with social workers, so I wanted to help launch this school so we could get in front of the problem and get the kids to understand what social workers do.”

Wong, who also serves as director of the School of Social Work’s field education department, helped design the initial curriculum, which incorporates lessons on mental health issues into core classes, such as post-traumatic stress disorder in 10th grade world history. She also assisted in creating CHAS’s elective classes, including geography of health for 9th graders, introductory social work for 10th graders; statistics for health advocacy for 11th graders; and even an internship program for 12th graders.

These classes are unique to CHAS but educators wanted to make sure they could be offered to students at any high school in California. To do that, and to ensure these elective classes are designed to meet state college preparatory requirements, CHAS recently applied for and received a California Department of Education Specialized Secondary Programs grant, which is awarded to programs that provide students with advanced learning opportunities, with the help of Wong; Clinical Associate Professor Eugenia Weiss; and Hortensia Amaro, USC associate vice provost of community research initiatives and the dean’s professor of social work and preventative medicine at the School of Social Work.

“For African-American and Latino students, it’s important for them to serve those populations, and they have lived experience that they can use to relate and give credibility to their community,” Amaro said. “This partnership with CHAS demonstrates how schools of social work can relate to local schools like this.”

School of Social Work professors have hosted CHAS students at USC for a tour and lunch with faculty and graduate students, guest lectured in CHAS classes and opened doors to opportunities most high school students never thought possible.

In the introductory social work class, which Clinical Associate Professor Tory Cox helped develop, students created genograms that depict their family tree and family members’ medical histories to show hereditary patterns. The exercise was designed to teach students skills that social workers use in practice, as well as allow for personal discovery. Hanson said the projects led to lively discussions about which family patterns students would like to continue and the ones they would like to change. 

To help students understand how their families and communities have changed over time, Amaro, with the help of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, developed a project for the same class in which students performed intergenerational interviews using iPod Touches to create audio-visual threads. Amaro said this exercise helped students learn the strengths and concerns within their communities, which they then articulated through their mini movies, allowing them to reflect on their own roles in addressing these issues.

Amaro has also assisted in developing the curriculum for CHAS’s senior-year internship class, which students take before diving into a real internship at St. John’s Well Child Center, Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic, or local branches of the YMCA or Kaiser Permanente. Students were tasked with research projects that studied issues related to teens experiencing trauma. Students performed their own research as well as compared data from local and national sources. Wong connected CHAS to colleagues at the policy think tank RAND Corporation whose researchers evaluated the projects. Some students were invited to present their findings at a conference dedicated to the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS), an evidence-based program using group intervention to relieve symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety among children affected by violence, bullying and trauma. Wong, along with colleagues from RAND and UCLA, was one of the original developers of CBITS.

“Sexual assault…was a tough thing to [study in our internship class], but it was really interesting to learn what happens when a person goes through something like that,” said senior Valerie Villafana, who chose to transfer to CHAS. “I’ve always had a passion for [the medical field], so when I learned there was a school dedicated to health care, I didn’t think twice. I thought [CHAS] was a perfect fit.”

Five USC School of Social Work professors have given guest lectures at CHAS on various social welfare topics, including teen sexual abuse, effective homeless transitions into housing, day care for low income mothers, empathy and active listening, and military families. After Assistant Professor Benjamin Henwood spoke about homelessness, Lemus thought more critically about her surroundings.

“His lecture made me realize that people may be living on the street not because they want to but because they have mental illness. It made me want to learn more about that,” said Lemus, who would like to become a therapist or counselor one day. “I see homeless people in my community every day. I want to try to help them.”

Hanson has seen many positive responses to these lessons and believes that CHAS is actively changing negative associations with social workers.

“There’s more positive language around our school. [Students] now see themselves becoming health advocates in their communities,” she said.

And USC has played a big role in that transformation.

“Because USC is a neighborhood school, kids always have an affinity for it because it’s right up the street,” Hanson said. “Now they really see themselves as part of USC and can see themselves going there. Being face-to-face with professors has made it a real possibility for them.”