• by Dorothy L. Knight • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 1997
In the absence of a national recognition program for the “Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities” programs in schools, the STAR Center* conducted a modified statewide recognition program in order to encourage and support schools to continue the development and implementation of programs that decrease violence and drug use in the schools. All schools in the state were given the opportunity to apply for recognition in the early spring of 1997. The streamlined application emphasized the identification of results of prevention programs in the schools, as evidenced by data that reflected a decrease in violence and disciplinary action and an increase in parent and community involvement.
To determine the nature and effectiveness of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities programs, representatives from the STAR Center (assisted by prevention specialists from Education Service Centers 4, 7, 10 and 11, Marcie Alford of Hardin ISD and Linda Ceigel of Eagle-Mountain Saginaw ISD) visited 11 of the schools that had applied for statewide recognition. These visits consisted of a review of data regarding the programs, inspection of materials used in the programs, and interviews of school staff, students, parents and community members. Based on the information gathered by the site visit teams, nine schools were chosen for recognition, and one was awarded special acknowledgment for its prevention program.
Decisions to award recognition were based on information that verified the extent and nature of the school’s prevention program and reflected the school’s response to identify challenges specific to the school and its community. Thus, both the comprehensiveness and the responsiveness of the program were considered indicators of success, as verified by data that reflected improvement in the safety and discipline of students and programs that increased student participation and parent and community involvement.
A review of the information gathered by the site visit teams provides some insight into the nature of effective prevention programs as well as details about specific program components. Because the number of schools visited was not extensive, it must be noted that the information gathered provides indications that need further research to establish a sound data base. However, the following observations are intended to provide not only the proverbial food for thought but also grist for the mill – concepts that can result in useful programs, policies and practices.
Effective Prevention Programs and School Improvement
An examination of the nature of effective prevention programs and school improvement strategies reveals some striking similarities in the goals and methods of each. Because 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 be implementing strategies that increase student achievement by improving the environment as well as the learning methodology.
Recent research documents the characteristics of successful schools. Such schools utilize the following (for further discussion see Knight and Vigil, 1997):
- Foundation of core beliefs, such as the belief that all students can learn.
- Collaborative learning.
- Higher order thinking skills.
- Interdisciplinary learning.
- Transition programs, such as vertical teaming.
- Communication with parents and communities.
Because of the similarities of systemic school improvement and prevention programs, it is worthwhile to look at the drug use and violence prevention programs of schools in relation to the overall function of the school. One way to understand this relationship is by reviewing the Texas Education Agency accountability rating of the schools awarded Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities recognition.
A correlation between the success of schools, as evidenced by student achievement, and effective prevention programs is most apparent with the elementary schools awarded recognition: three of the four elementary schools had achieved a “recognized” accountability rating. It is notable that one of the three middle schools awarded recognition had achieved a “recognized” rating and none of the three high schools awarded recognition had achieved a “recognized” rating.
Since the characteristics of successful schools described above are found most often in elementary schools, it is perhaps safe to say that drug use and violence prevention programs in elementary schools that are meeting the needs of their students, as evidenced by the successful achievement of students, are a natural extension of the school organization and climate. The social and decision-making skills taught by prevention programs promote the same healthy behavior that is supported by a caring and learner-centered environment.
Because the involvement of parents and community members is usually greater in elementary schools, the support and caring that students experience in these schools generate a greater feeling of belonging that students can acknowledge. In fact, almost all elementary students in the recognized schools visited by the STAR Center teams reported the caring of their teachers and administrators as the best aspect of their school.
In addition to providing a caring environment, elementary schools with successful prevention programs have developed and implemented programs to deal with challenges that are specific to the school and community and/or implemented special support programs for children from families that are dealing with alcoholism or other drug use. Most of these schools have also implemented various mediation, conflict resolution and/or self-management programs that have been successful in decreasing school violence and improving discipline.
Middle Schools and Junior High Schools
The diverse needs of students in middle schools and junior high schools dramatically affect the ability of the school to meet the needs of its students. And although a caring environment is a foundation for promoting the well-being of students, the many changes students experience at this age, including how they handle information as well as the social and cultural changes of puberty, necessitate the development of more specialized drug use and violence prevention programs.
For students in early adolescence, the need for more intense early intervention becomes a critical factor. Strategies that identify students who are considered at risk of violent behavior and substance abuse are only as useful as the intervention programs developed to address their needs. The success of these programs depends on the resources (both in direct services provided by staff and training for staff) and the commitment of the school to find and dedicate the necessary resources. Despite the challenges of implementation, early intervention must be viewed as a crucial part of a successful prevention program.
Other support programs, such as transition assistance programs, recreational activities, community service activities, peer mediation and conflict resolution, mentoring programs, parent and community involvement, and especially the availability of peer support groups, keep students connected to the school, their families, the community and each other. Thus, the need for caring can be met by various strategies that appeal to different types of learners and individuals.
The middle school and junior high school prevention programs awarded recognition were responsive to the special needs of students in environments that varied greatly. Perhaps the most clearly identifiable characteristic of these programs was the development of programs tailored to the school and community. Students in this age group who were interviewed by the STAR Center teams were more likely to cite their support group or a specific teacher or sponsor as the best aspect of their school. Some students this age also expressed appreciation for the variety of educational activities and opportunities available in their school.
The critical nature of early intervention remains evident in drug use and violence prevention programs in the high schools. The need for teens to remain connected, as well as develop skills that will be useful to them in both their academic and personal lives, becomes an even more difficult task for the school to accomplish as the opportunities for dangerous and anti-social behavior increase.
The responsibility of high schools to provide an alternate education program for students who have identified behavior problems or students who have different learning and schedule needs (such as teenage parents) provides an opportunity to intervene and recover students who might otherwise discontinue their education. The use of prevention strategies in alternate education programs can create an environment in these programs that focuses on recovery and redirection rather than punishment.
The high school programs awarded recognition were effective in developing “safety net” programs that benefitted students with special needs as well as providing a variety of activities and opportunities that students appreciated. Most students in this age group cited peer support groups and diverse opportunities for academic and social involvement as the most significant quality in their school.
In order to develop and implement effective prevention programs or improve the quality of existing programs, schools can hardly go wrong by pursuing school improvement initiatives that focus on academic achievement. The self-study and planning that are a necessary part of school improvement usually result in increased awareness of identified needs and the development of strategies focused on achieving specific goals. This process benefits prevention programs as well as academic programs.
One characteristic of a school that is seeking to identify areas of concern and develop strategies to address these concerns is the existence of a planning process that produces a campus improvement plan that truly reflects the school’s programs, policies and practices. Such a plan is reviewed and revised annually by the campus site-based decision-making team and others as appropriate.
The goals and objectives for Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities programs should be reflected in the campus improvement plan. Since many school improvement initiatives, such as parent involvement, are required by other federally funded programs as well as Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (Title IV), the goals can include strategies specific to Title IV and other programs.
In addition to pursuing school improvement initiatives that create a caring climate, elementary schools would do well to develop and/or maintain activities that help students learn self-management and peer mediation, since evidence indicates these programs help students make positive changes in behavior.
Prevention programs for middle schools and high schools must address the need for an early intervention process that identifies students who are experiencing academic or behavior problems and supports them in developing the skills needed to succeed academically and personally. Such programs require training for all staff and many times require on-site specialists who work with students individually to counsel and redirect behavior and attitudes. Alternative education programs can function as a means to recover and redirect students if they include personal support as well as accelerated instruction to students who have experienced academic failure.
The most obvious need for prevention improvement at all levels is the implementation of a curriculum that integrates academic instruction with violence and drug use prevention. Despite the existence and availability of such a curriculum from the Texas Education Agency, few schools have implemented the lessons in a consistent manner. One reason for this is the necessity for staff training and commitment to conduct the classroom lessons. The availability of a new curriculum developed by the Texas Education Agency that includes violence prevention as well as user friendly technology should support schools in this effort. Training for implementation will be available through the education service centers.
Finally, increasing parent and community involvement, especially in secondary schools, is a strategy that deserves the attention and resources of schools as they become centers of communities that support children in learning 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.
Because of the complex nature of violence and drug use, strategies to deal with these challenges must address the need for comprehensive and focused programs based on the research of successful programs. Research to build a data base on the nature and characteristics of successful prevention programs must be the next step.
- In 1979, 25 million people in the United States used an illegal drug during the preceding month. In 1995, 12.8 million used an illegal drug in the past month, a decrease of nearly 50 percent (SAMHSA National Household Survey
- In the 1980s, complete abstinence from drugs was claimed by fewer than one in 13 high school seniors. In 1995 nearly one out of five seniors reported complete abstinence, an increase of nearly 250 percent (National Institute on Drug Abuse, Monitoring the Future Survey).
- Researchers in a study of 6,000 students in New York state found that the odds of drinking, smoking and using marijuana were 40 percent lower among students who participated in a school-based substance abuse program in grades seven through nine than among their counterparts who did not (Cornell University).
- Successful substance abuse prevention also leads to reductions in traffic fatalities, violence, unwanted pregnancy, child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, injuries, cancer, heart disease and lost productivity.
Prevention programs can:
- Encourage change in youth behavior patterns that are indicative of eventual substance abuse.
- Improve parenting skills and family relationships.
- Change individual characteristics that are predictive of later substance abuse.
- Reduce delinquent behaviors among youth that are frequently associated with substance abuse and drug-related crime.
- Transmit generic life skills.
Source Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (www.health.org ).
Knight, D. and J. Vigil. “School Improvement, Parent Involvement and Prevention,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1997).
Program profiles of all schools awarded recognition or acknowledgment are available from the STAR Center web site (www.starcenter.org ).
* 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 the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and RMC Research Corporation. For information about STAR Center services, call 1-888-FYI-STAR.
Dorothy Knight is an educator with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Comments and questions can be sent to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 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.]