• by Dorothy L. Knight, MS and Joseph L. Vigil, MS • IDRA Newsletter • September 1997
Community action as a means of decreasing violence and drug use has proven successful when schools, parents and communities unite. This vision has made the subject of parental involvement an integral piece of the discussion at various conferences across the nation. In Washington, D.C., this past June, the conference, Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools: Turning Research Into Action, supported the vision of parental and community involvement. Vice President Albert Gore Jr. opened this conference with a strong message of “zero tolerance” for drugs, violence and weapons in our schools. He also emphasized the importance of effective prevention programs and school improvement.
The involvement of parents and communities constitutes a strategy of all school improvement initiatives, including violence and drug use prevention programs. Since the social and economic culture of homes and communities influence students in their learning and personal behavior, prevention programs can unify all efforts to provide consistent messages that influence the development of values in young people. These values are reflected in the attitudes of youth toward learning, working and ultimately becoming a contributing member of the community.
A close examination of the nature of effective prevention programs and school improvement strategies reveals some striking similarities in the goals and methods of each. Since the goal of prevention programs is to create the social and academic conditions necessary to support students in learning and maintaining healthy behavior, schools engaged in the active process of improvement are more likely to implement strategies that increase student achievement by improving the environment as well as the learning methodology.
Recent research documenting the characteristics of successful schools reveals that a foundation of core beliefs, such as the belief that all students can learn, not only builds academic success but also forms the basis for effective prevention programs in schools. Such core beliefs, usually reflected in the school’s vision statement, create an atmosphere of caring and respect for individual abilities that affects the students as well as the staff, parents and community of a school. This caring atmosphere in turn results in high expectations and a high level of commitment to achievement. Schools supporting such core beliefs also develop the foundation for the prevention of violence and drug use by providing an environment that builds the protective factors needed to enhance student resiliency.
An environment that nurtures students, staff and parents encourages the development of collaborative learning for students, staff and parents. Understanding how to work and share with others yet maintain individual perspective plays an important role in developing the skills necessary for young people to interact in positive ways with their peers and not be dominated by peer culture. Thus, collaborative learning provides the basis for many prevention programs that focus on peer group interaction.
In addition to school environment and collaborative learning, many school improvement instructional methodologies share vital characteristics of violence and drug use prevention strategies. Higher order thinking skills are the tools needed to understand how to use information. These skills form the foundation for making connections, drawing logical conclusions and making rational decisions in everyday situations, including whether or not to use drugs and violence as coping or problem-solving mechanisms. Interdisciplinary learning, which is the integration of academic learning across all subject areas, provides a means of weaving information and decision-making skills into the academic content areas. This integration connects learning with life skills, as is evident in violence and drug use prevention curricula.
Another school improvement strategy involves transition programs, such as vertical teaming. Vertical teaming involves the pairing of teachers from different grade levels to support the teaching staff in understanding the academic needs of students as they move from one grade to another. It also forms an important strategy in violence and drug use prevention by focusing on issues of social adjustment as students move from one level of school to another. Parent education and involvement are essential in supporting students as they move through critical transition stages.
Communication provides the key element needed for parents to work with their children, schools and communities in order to ensure safe and drug-free schools and communities. Establishing an open dialogue between these entities for the expression of needs, fears, expectations and commitments can help build partnerships. These partnerships, if successful, will in turn play a critical role in the success of our children and future generations. With such an important outcome riding on the effectiveness of these endeavors, we cannot afford to fail.
The strategy of increasing parent and community involvement, especially in the secondary schools, deserves the attention and resources of schools, especially as they become centers that support children in growing up to be healthy and productive adults. Full participation of families will require schools to adopt strategies that make each campus a place that welcomes and supports all parents and family members.
Vice President Gore talked about the Gun-Free Schools Act and “zero tolerance” for weapons in the schools at the conference in Washington, DC Students experience enough difficulties trying to succeed in school without the threat of weapons and violence around them. The vice president encouraged participants to continue seeking creative solutions to the challenge of decreasing drug use and violence in schools and communities. School improvement initiatives that increase parent involvement provide the foundation for successful prevention programs.
Dorothy Knight is an educator with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Joseph Vigil is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Both provide training and technical assistance to schools through the STAR Center. The STAR Center is the comprehensive regional assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education to serve Texas. It is a collaboration of IDRA, the Dana Center at UT Austin, and RMC Research Corporation. For information about STAR Center services, call 1-888-FYI-STAR. Comments and questions can sent via e-mail to Dorothy Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org and to Joseph Vigil at email@example.com.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]