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Reconnecting Youth program boosts teens

Seventeen-year-old Chris Malcolm is the first to admit he squandered a lot of his high school years because he just didn’t care.

“I was like, I don’t care about school, I don’t care if I’m here, it’s so boring I can’t deal with it,” said Malcolm, a senior at Summit High School in Frisco. “But now, I can tell myself the day’s gonna be fine, I’m fine, and I’m capable of doing school.”

Malcolm will graduate in the spring and intends to enroll in Colorado Mountain College. He hopes to become either a distiller or a meteorologist, and eventually he wants to live in New York City. Whatever, he’s got a plan, and he’s working to make it happen.

He credits the turnaround in his life to one class, which he’s taking this year. It meets second period, three days a week.

It’s called Reconnecting Youth, and it’s a special class for at-risk youth. In Summit County it’s offered in partnership between the school district and county Department of Youth and Family Services. Elsewhere around the state a handful of schools also partner with social service agencies to offer the class.

Graduation – against all odds

Robin Albert, director of Youth and Family Services for Summit County, has been leading the class for the past five years. She’s not a professional teacher; she’s a social worker. But she shows a teacher’s pride when she talks about the students she’s seen graduate – against all odds – over the years.

“In five years, we’ve had 126 students go through the program. And there are only two who chose to drop out,” she said. “Do they go from F’s to A’s? No. Do they still struggle? Yes. But are their grades improving? Yes.”

The program has been shown to improve more than just grades, though that and a decrease in absenteeism are the easiest markers to quantify. Nationwide, students enrolled in the class have exhibited a 50 percent decrease in hard drug use, a 75 percent reduction in depression, an 80 percent reduction in suicidal behaviors, a 32 percent decline in perceived stress and a 23 percent increase in “self-efficacy” or a sense of personal control. Since its creation in the 1990s, Reconnecting Youth has been touted as one of the strongest evidence-based programs for decreasing teen suicide, drug involvement and poor school performance.

As Malcolm describes it, the class has taught him how to talk himself out of helplessness. “I just tell myself that things aren’t ever as bad as they look,” he said. “They’re only as bad as I let them be. I have control.”

Classmate Hannah Lane, 17, credits the class with giving her the tools to verbally rebuff friends bent on tempting her into compromising situations. “I’m definitely speaking up for myself now,” she said. “When I was younger, I’d been involved in drug use. It was me not being able to say no. But now I’ve been able to pull myself out of some situations that I couldn’t deal with before. My grades are better, and I’m hanging out with different people.”

Program focuses on decision making, personal control

The curriculum can be taught in a semester or over a whole year. It focuses on self-esteem, decision-making, personal control and interpersonal communications. Strategies for establishing drug-free activities and friendships outside of class are also stressed.

The program was developed at the University of Washington over the course of three federal grants spanning seven years in the 1990s. Since then, training in the program has been repeatedly offered around the country in almost every state, said Beth McNamara, director of program and training for Reconnecting Youth.

“I would be at a loss to tell you the exact number of youth served, but it’s thousands and thousands,” she said.

Albert believes the key to the program’s success with teenagers is its relentless focus on them, not on the curriculum or their grades.

“We focus on what they’re doing that already works,” she said. “The first thing we do, every class, is check in, one by one. Right there, you’re engaging with each kid individually. You make eye contact. You listen. You hear how they feel.”

She also usually provides them with breakfast, which doesn’t hurt.

Not a counseling group

McNamara says the facilitator makes all the difference. “We know the program works, but if we don’t have a facilitator in the room with the kids who honestly cares about these higher-risk, more-difficult-to-work-with kids, even a good program can fail,” she said. “It’s not a rap group, not a counseling group. It’s a skills training course that actually gives kids new techniques to deal with old problems.”

In Albert’s class, for instance, each of the 12 students has a brown bag into which written compliments – either to themselves or to others – are dropped daily. “At the end of the semester, they get to keep the bag,” Albert said. “But they can go and check their bag at any time.”

Each student develops an individualized goal plan. “It might be around grades, or whatever they’re struggling in,” Albert said. “It may be that their goal is to pass algebra. Then we talk about the steps to get there. ‘I can get homework help.’ ‘I can stay after class and ask for help or do extra credit assignments.’”

Sometimes their struggles involve relationships. “Someone may be defiant to the principal, or doesn’t like the teachers and cusses them out, or has a short temper,” Albert said. “So mood management is a big thing. What are their exit plans when they think they’re about to blow? Where can they go and what can they do to vent?”

Albert relishes the success stories. She recalls one young man who had failed every class his freshman year. The Reconnecting Youth class is an elective, but his counselor strongly encouraged him to enroll at the start of his sophomore year.

“We worked on his mood management, and got him plugged into some services. We got him in to see a mental health counselor because he was very depressed,” Albert said. “We got him on the right meds, and he stabilized and ended up being the first person in his family to graduate. He went on to community college, but his goal was to go to the Colorado Art Institute. I thought he’d do two years at community college, but he was only there one semester before he made it to the art school. He worked out getting the necessary loans all by himself.”

Challenge to remove stigma from the class

At Salida High School in Chaffee County, Kayla Maddox, coordinator of the county’s Youth@Crossroads program, teaches the Reconnecting Youth class. Next semester, she’ll teach it at Buena Vista High School.

She says she’s worked hard to avoid any hint of stigma for students taking the class. She doesn’t want it to be viewed as a class for losers.

“I feel it’s a class all students could benefit from,” she said. “All teens are at risk for something. All kids struggle with something. This class is really about self-exploration.”

Often as not, the kids teach each other, she said. “My role is to model respectful behavior,” she said. “Once they start doing that every day, you hear them start to check in with each other automatically. Just a few positive words to each other during the day can make a big difference.”

“A lot of folks question putting high risk kids together in a group,” McNamara acknowledges. “It can go wrong if people aren’t working the program. But when done right, that environment allows kids to share some serious and real issues, and to practice difficult skills in the safety of a positive peer group, so when they get out in the real world they’ll have a sense of competency.”

It helps, she said, that not all the students in the group come with the same set of issues. “Even if a kid isn’t involved in drugs, he may be struggling in school because his parents are going through a divorce. So when they go to Reconnecting Youth, they’re able to offer support to others around staying clean and sober because that’s a strength they have. They can show their strengths while still receiving help for their own issues.”

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