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San Luis teens work on classmates’ health

It’s not like the Sanford School is overrun with drugs and alcohol. It’s more like it’s overrun with … nothing to do.

The school, in the community of Sanford in rural Conejos County in southeastern Colorado, is many miles from the amenities of larger places and, other than sports, extracurricular activities for its 350 students are limited. Resources for its teachers are limited as well.

It’s exactly the kind of place where Elaine Belansky, a University of Colorado Denver assistant professor in community and behavior health, could find fertile ground for testing a project designed to get young adolescents talking about healthy environments and being engaged in creating them.

Working Together Project in third year of pilot

Belansky is the lead researcher on the Working Together Project, a five-year project funded by the Centers for Disease Control that’s reaching out to schools in the San Luis Valley.

So far, the program has been piloted in three schools and two new schools are trying it out this fall. A third will begin it in the spring.

Belansky supplies the schools with 60 hours worth of curriculum and a full-time assistant who attends as many of the classes as possible to record what’s happening and to provide ongoing support to the teacher.

The schools provide a teacher – preferably of the “kid magnet” kind who has little trouble connecting with 13-year-olds – and time in the schedule for the class, which is aimed at seventh-graders.

Sanford agreed to pilot the program last year, along with middle schools in Mosca and Moffat.

Kids thought drug, alcohol abuse needed to be addressed

When 17 of the school’s 28 seventh-graders sat down last fall to talk about what their school’s most pressing health problem was, and how they might address it, drug and alcohol use loomed top of the list.

“For the kids, it was awesome … They felt like they were actually making a difference. They learned an effective way to make a change.”
— Tami Valentine, teacherThey’d pored over data from the Healthy Kids Colorado survey, which showed in detail just what health problems and risky behaviors confronted their classmates. They asked key adults in the school to complete a survey to help them identify an issue ripe for addressing. They examined what “best practices” were already going on in their school and which were not.

Once they’d settled on drug and alcohol use as an issue, they did a root cause analysis to determine why Sanford students might be especially vulnerable. They realized that a lack of opportunities to engage in positive activities might be contributing to drug use.

“We decided it would be good if we provided more after-school activities,” said Tami Valentine, the teacher at Sanford’s secondary school tapped to work with the students on their project.

“When we looked at surveys, it’s not like there was a really high rate of drug usage in the school, but they wanted to find ways to prevent it, ways to give kids something to do besides get involved with drugs,” she said. “And I liked that, because it reached out to all our students.”

It took several more rounds of surveys, a little bit of arm-twisting and even a trip to the school board, but eventually the school’s students, teachers and administrators determined what sorts of things they’d like, what sorts of things were possible and what things fell into both categories.

As of now, the youngsters are still waiting for that first after-school activity – archery training or golf – to be scheduled. But it will be soon.

What’s more important, the kids are feeling empowered that they actually got to change the culture of their school. They studied a problem and came up with a workable solution that all the evidence suggests will be effective.

“For the kids, it was awesome,” Valentine said. “We had lots of good discussions. We had debates. We used the democratic process. They felt like they were actually making a difference. They learned an effective way to make a change. And I think that will carry over to society. Rather than just complaining, they know how to get in there and get their hands dirty.”

Sangre de Cristo students tackle ‘checking out’ issue

In nearby Mosca, eighth-grade students at Sangre de Cristo Middle School were also taking up the issues impacting the health of their classmates. They determined that just “checking out” – a general lack of interest and motivation that can lead to dropping out – along with bullying were issues they could tackle.

“We talked about having accessibility to lesson plans on the school web site for kids who miss,” said teacher Deborah Shawcroft, who mentored the students. “We found that when kids miss school, they get buried when they come back, and give up. They feel there’s no way out of the hole. But if they had access to the lesson plans, maybe they could get that work done ahead of time.”

The students also launched a student-driven newsletter, in hopes of giving classmates more of a sense of empowerment and a say in the school’s goings-on.

“I think what we did took root in the school,” said 14-year-old J.J. Casados, one of the students who worked on the Sangre de Cristo team last year. “I know some students who may not get the best grades, but at least they’re trying. I don’t think it’s as big a problem now as when we started.”

Success on several levels

For Belansky, what happened in Sanford and Mosca worked on several levels.

Belansky bemoans the fact that despite years of research that have pinpointed what works, small rural schools can’t always take advantage of that research.“As a researcher, there’s a couple of things we’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “Of importance to the education community, we’re helping schools get best practices into place for promoting student health. That’s the ultimate goal.

“But we are also trying to develop a process for kids to be change-makers. We share with them the latest research, then have them find ways to get those best practices into place.”

Belansky bemoans the fact that despite years of research that have pinpointed what works and what doesn’t, schools – particularly small rural schools in which every adult is expected to wear multiple hats – can’t always take advantage of that research.

For example, research consistently shows that abstinence-only sex education curricula is far less successful at lowering the teen pregnancy rate than programs that include information about contraceptives and safe sex. Yet many schools won’t abandon the abstinence-only approach.

Another less controversial example is physical education. There are a handful of outstanding PE programs, including one called SPARK, that are proven to lead to increased academic achievement, better test performance and more physical activity. Yet schools fail to adopt these proven programs in favor of less effective ones.

“I think it’s simply that people just don’t know what the latest and greatest best practices are,” said Belansky. “And if you look at rural Colorado, we have PE teachers who haven’t been given the opportunity for professional development in 30 years. And principals may not know what the latest and greatest is because they’ve got so many other things they’re dealing with.

“That’s where the university can play such a relevant role in helping communities,” she said. “We’re in such a great place to provide communities with menus of best practices, and a framework for people to critique that menu, then figure out what can work best for them.”

Choice is based on local data, adult input

The Working Together curriculum is a six-step planning process that begins with studying local data about health issues. Youngsters get to choose which from among seven health issues they’d like to concentrate on, then determine why that particular issue is a problem for their school and what changes could be made to address it. Then they go out and make it happen.

One of the key ingredients is the assembly of a “dream team” of caring, supporting adults who will be champions for the kids and help them succeed in implementing changes.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that it’s very hard for those adults to make time during the school day to come to class and participate,” Belansky acknowledged. “At one of the schools, the kids invited a second-grade teacher that they all loved. She was delighted to be invited to be on the dream team, but it was very hard for her to leave her class for 20-30 minutes to drop in on their class. So to make this work, we have to keep scaling this back to make it less intensive for the adults.”

The pilot program is now in its third year, and so far the results have been encouraging, Belansky said. She meets monthly with a steering committee overseeing how the programs are playing out in the test schools.

“We continue to find ways to support schools in implementing their changes,” she said. “We’re trying to focus on changes that give us the biggest bang for the buck, not just the low-hanging fruit. So those kind of changes take time to implement. They’re not just easy things you put into place the following week.”

Working Together Project’s six-step planning process for students

  1. Checking out our health and what’s happening in our school.
  2. Which health problem should we work on?
  3. Why do we have this health problem?
  4. What changes should we make to our school to work on this health problem?
  5. Let’s make it happen!
  6. How can we make sure our changes work and stick around?

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