Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 2
It takes a villageSanta Maria Valley's Safe Schools, Healthy Students grant is set to expire this year, but educators are committed to continuing services as best they can
BY AMY ASMAN
Like any parent and teenager, high school junior Caleb Coyle and his mom, Lisa, have had their share of fights. But sometimes the arguing can escalate into unhealthy territory.
Caleb described one of those fights to the Sun on a recent school night as he was waiting for Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley employees to start their Parent Project meeting. The free-of-cost program helps families who are experiencing conflict over poor grades, truancy, and other at-risk behavior learn how to better communicate.
“I was referred by the [juvenile] court because I guess me and my mom kept arguing; that’s why I’m on probation. They thought [the class would] be good for us,” Caleb said.
During one especially heated argument, Caleb said, he kicked in a door. He was charged with vandalism—his second such offense—and was referred to Parent Project. He also has to complete 20 hours of community service at a local church.
Caleb and Lisa are now in their eighth week of the 10-week program, which includes separate courses for parents and teens on healthy communication, drug and alcohol abuse and prevention, and more.
“I think it’s helped my anger chill a little bit,” Caleb said. “And my mom’s a little more understanding and willing to talk about things rather than just judging.”
When the Sun approached Lisa for her side of the story, she was pleasantly surprised to learn that her son had volunteered to talk about his experience.
“I can’t believe he talked to you. That’s mind-blowing!” she said.
Lisa said she and her son have struggled to understand each other for years. They’re under particular stress now, she explained in a later interview, as they’re looking for a place to live and are hoping to find someone who can rent them a place closer to San Luis Obispo, where Caleb might be able to channel his energy into lacrosse.
“The class has brought us a lot closer. He still has anger issues, but we’re working on it,” she said. “And I’ve learned a lot, like that I need to turn around when we’re arguing and step back and not fight him. I need to let him vent a little bit, but if it gets out of hand, I need to say, ‘You need to go away and not come back until you’ve calmed down and you can treat me with respect.’”
Helping parents and children like Lisa and Caleb understand each other more is a major goal of Parent Project, program facilitator Jessie Lozano said.
“The objective is to get parents and their kids to actually unite and talk,” he said. “People tell me all the time in surveys, ‘I just don’t understand my teen.’ And the teens say the same thing about their parents.
“We want the parents to know that strong-willed kids are not bad kids, they just need more love and attention,” he explained. “We’re not telling them they’re bad parents; we’re just getting back to the basics of being a parent.”
As for the teens, facilitator Chastity Johnson said, “They learn about self-responsibility and how to deal with anger. But the key component is love and affection and having them understand their own personal power … and how to use that power in a positive way.”
Safe Schools, Healthy Students
Parent Project is one of dozens of free, school-based programs designed to help local children and families live happier, healthier lives.
For the last five years, a federal grant has footed the bill for a significant portion of these programs and services in the Santa Maria-Bonita, Santa Maria Joint Union, Orcutt, and Guadalupe school districts.
Since its implementation in 2008, the Safe Schools, Healthy Students grant has enabled educators to partner with local nonprofits, research groups, and law enforcement officials to promote school safety and healthy childhood development.
That grant, however, is set to expire at the end of this school year.
Faced with the cuts, a consortium of educators, mental health professionals, and nonprofit activists is working hard to make sure the resulting changes aren’t too drastic.
“It’s always hard to have a large grant come into the community because unless you have a sustainable funding plan, the resources tend to drop off,” said Al Rodriguez, the grant’s project director and executive director of Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, a youth-focused nonprofit that is one of the grant’s key service providers.
“There are funding possibilities out there. I’m feeling hopeful and optimistic that the organization will move forward,” Rodriguez said. “The federal, state, county, and city levels of government aren’t awash in new dollars. We have to be creative and strategic.”
One of the reasons he’s optimistic about funding is that school safety, mental health, and other preventative services seem to be at the forefront of people’s minds right now because of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“Government officials are talking about the need to understand what prompts young people, or people in general, to take violent action,” Rodriguez said.
In other words, people from Santa Maria to Washington, D.C., want to make sure their children are safe, healthy, and thriving.
Rodriguez said the Safe Schools, Healthy Students grant has helped local schools do all of those things for the last five years.
“The grant has taught us so much, and [we’ve also] learned about the other programs being used across the country,” he said. “One door might be closing on certain services, but another could be opening to other programs and services.”
Breaking down the services
When it comes to educational funding, federal grants are typically designed to create partnerships in the community and to stretch dollars as far as they will go. The Safe Schools, Healthy Students grant is no exception.
The multi-million dollar grant is shared among the school districts, Fighting Back, the Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center, the Santa Barbara County Probation Department, and a team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara.
The grant is the primary funding source for Fighting Back, which uses the money to pay for most of its educational programs, including Parent Project and the following:
Class Action is a classroom-based curriculum that emphasizes the social and legal consequences of underage drinking by having students act out the parts of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in a mock trial format. They’re required to learn about how state laws and legal precedents are used in civil lawsuits filed by people harmed by underage drinking.
Check, Connect, and Respect is a truancy-prevention program that matches struggling students with adult mentors. Over a nine-week period, the mentor and mentee cultivate a caring relationship and brainstorm ways to deter truancy, rather than just blaming the student.
• Resolving Conflict Creatively uses mediation and restorative justice methods to resolve conflicts among students.
• The grant money is also used to help fund Fighting Back’s youth involvement group, which hosts and participates in “above the influence” events at local schools and in the community. Most recently, the group hosted an anti-bullying rally called “Respecting Me, Respecting You” at Lakeview Junior High School.
And that’s not all the grant does. It also pays for therapeutic services for children and parents affected by a traumatic life event.
“What we’ve found is that most of the kids experiencing problems at school or showing symptoms of distress have had trauma in their lives, such as sexual abuse, child abuse, or violence,” said Judi Nishimori, associate executive director of Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center, the nonprofit that offers the therapy services.
“If they don’t work through [the trauma], they’re always going to be responding to it. They’re going to be hyper vigilant to it,”
In addition to offering therapy services, Youth and Family employees—with the help of four school-based probation officers—work with students and their families to increase school attendance and ultimately achieve graduation.
“There are a lot of the reasons why children are truant. It’s not just because they’re lazy or they don’t want to go to school,” Nishimori said. “Often they’re staying home to care for their parents or their siblings, or they don’t have any clothes to wear, or they’re worried about not having food to eat, or they don’t have a bed to sleep in. They’re focused on survival.
“The economic climate has made these issues especially apparent in the last five years. There are families experiencing homelessness that never thought they’d be homeless, which is traumatic for everyone, especially the children,” she continued.
When a child or family is going through something like that, she said, “We have to make sure we’re asking, ‘How can we help you?’ rather than just saying, ‘You need to go to school.’”
So what’s next?
Obviously, the economic climate has also affected the schools themselves and the amount of funding available for essential services like those offered through the Safe Schools, Health Students grant.
Luckily, there does seem to be a silver lining to this cloud of budget woes.
While some programs are definitely on the chopping block, Fighting Back’s Rodriguez said others will continue to be offered, but in different ways.
The mock trial program Class Action will no longer receive funding, but many local schools have started to institutionalize Fighting Back’s drug and alcohol prevention curriculum, Too Good For Drugs and Alcohol.
The youth group will continue being host to “Respecting Me, Respecting You” anti-bullying events, thanks to a supportive grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara.
The other programs at the top of Rodriguez’s list for saving are Check, Connect, and Respect and Parent Project, as well as the mental health services offered by Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center.
Rodriguez was hesitant to discuss specifics about new funding opportunities because he said they haven’t yet been made official, but he reiterated his optimism for the future.
“We want to hold on to the aspects of the grant that have helped the students improve,” he said. “[The grant partners] can find ways to continue working together. We shouldn’t stop working together just because the grant is going away.”
Youth and Family Center’s Nishimori said she’d like to see the community get involved in the effort to save school resources.
“People need to become advocates. They need to write their legislators and say that [these services] are a priority,” she said. “And, of course, they can always exercise their ability to contribute, whether through volunteering or through making donations.”
One of the requirements of the Safe Schools, Healthy Students grant is ensuring that all of the funded programs are data-proven, meaning they get results.
Michael Furlong, an educational psychology professor and researcher at UC Santa Barbara, is responsible for analyzing the effectiveness of the programs, mainly through a social emotional health survey administered to Santa Maria Valley students.
Administered every other year, the survey assesses what’s known as the “co-vitality” of the students by asking them such questions as, “How well is your life going?” Co-vitality is a mix of positive personal assets, such as optimism and self-efficacy, and interpersonal resources and relationships.
Furlong told the Sun the survey asks, “What are our goals for the youth as students and as human beings?”
“That is the essence of co-vitality,” he said.
Coupling existing research with his own, Furlong determined there are 12 characteristics that are the building blocks to adolescent psychological well-being. These characteristics fall into four groups, including belief in self, belief in others, emotional competence, and living an engaged life.
According to Furlong, the two most important factors are belief in self and belief in others, which boils down to the questions, “Can I trust myself?” and “Can I trust others?”
And it turns out that the more of these 12 characteristics students have, the better they do in school and the more likely they are to resist underage drinking and drug use. The data show students who have six or more characteristics are generally the healthiest and happiest.
The schools, in turn, use the data from their individual surveys to make sure their students’ needs are being met. For example, officials at one local school noticed that the scores for peer support were considerably low, so they created more interactive events for students.
“And if a school wants to develop [a quality], like persistence, in its students, it can have professional development for the teachers to help them build that strength,” Furlong said.
Judi Nishimori with the Santa Maria Valley Youth and Family Center said her colleagues and she will also be working to develop these traits in children, even if they can’t get the necessary funding to continue offering trauma-focused therapy.
“We will build resiliency traits in young people. If they have none, we’ll help them build one. If they have four, we’ll help them preserve those four and hopefully build a fifth,” Nishimori said. “They’re probably not going to be able to have all 12, but six is definitely doable.”
And if everything goes according to plan, Furlong’s social emotional health survey could end up being used on a statewide level in addition to the California Healthy Kids Survey, which is administered every two years.
According to Furlong, the Healthy Kids survey focuses largely on potential drug and alcohol use. His hope is that the social emotional health survey will create more balance in the data by also asking students how they’re doing.
“Most of the kids aren’t smoking or drinking so the survey doesn’t relate to them,” he said.
When the kids do take the survey, he said, they often leave comments at the end asking what the survey is for.
“There were a lot of questions about what they were going to do with the data,” he said. “Kids were saying things like, ‘I’ve taken this survey three times and I haven’t seen anything change at school.’”
Furlong said he sent a memo to the California Department of Education recommending that it remove a lot of the questions about drugs and alcohol from the survey and replace them with some of his. He said the department has been receptive.
Another bonus of changing the survey, he said, is that it could potentially increase funding for programs that promote social and emotional well-being.
“[School boards] only implement programs based on the data they’ve received, and the data they receive are dependent on the questions that are asked,” he said.
He recalled a school official asking him after a presentation, “Have we been asking the right questions?”
Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at email@example.com.