Colorado State Joins Families, Schools to Improve Student Performance and Reduce Future Risky Behavior, Drop-Out Rates

DARE to be You, a Colorado State University Cooperative Extension program, recently clinched a $1.3 million grant to help young children transition into school, increasing their chances to be successful students and, in the long run, reducing their risk for future violence, school incompletion and substance abuse.

The project will focus on children, their families and school professionals in two areas of Colorado: Montezuma County and towns surrounding Shiprock, New Mexico.

The Family-School Bridge project, which received the grant from the Centers for Disease Control, is joint project with DARE to be You and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State. The project targets the crucial transitional time when youth enter kindergarten and first grade. Children who have difficulties transitioning into school or whose parents feel alienated from the school community have been identified as being more likely to drop out of school, at a higher risk of drug, tobacco and substance abuse and engaging in violent behavior as young adults and adults, according to David MacPhee, co-principal investigator on the project and a professor of human development and family studies.

"Children who are successful in school and who have a stable, supportive home life are at a reduced risk for later substance abuse and violence," said Jan Miller-Heyl, DARE to be You director and principal investigator. "Parents who develop strong, nurturing relationships with their children, communicate well with their children and who build positive relationships with their children’s teachers have a significant positive impact on their children’s transition into school. Research clearly shows that children who live in an environment where their parents and school officials have a strong, understanding relationship perform better in school."

Montezuma County is a rural, isolated county in the southwest corner of Colorado with a population of 23,830, including three small towns and the Ute community of Towaoc. The nearest city, Albuquerque, is 250 miles away. Although it is a small community, it is a microcosm of many of the social, educational and substance abuse issues for children and families that are common in the nation, with the exception of its school drop-out and substance abuse rates.

Several small communities in the Shiprock area that are almost 100 percent Navajo are participating in the study.

Project advisers from both communities cite a pattern of mistrust and feelings of alienation between schools and families, and the strain in the relationship is evident in the children who live in the community.

Within the study area school districts, the drop-out rates are as high as 73 percent for some ethnic and gender groups. About one-third of students from the combined ethnic groups measured – Hispanic, American Indian and white – did not complete high school.

The schools also record a high number of home-schooled students, some of whom have parents who did not themselves finish high school and may have difficulty providing the educational background to school their children. Family-School Bridge project advisers say this is likely another indication of a breakdown between relationships between schools and families.

In one middle school, youth were surveyed about their behavior during a one-month period. Thirty-seven percent reported riding with a drinking driver during that month, 29 percent carried a weapon, 26 percent contemplated suicide and 13 percent attempted suicide, 57 percent had smoked cigarettes, 24 percent had consumed alcohol, 40 percent had used marijuana, 17 percent had used inhalants and 13 percent had reported having sexual intercourse. In high-school aged residents, the numbers increased. For example, 80 percent of the seniors reported having consumed alcohol within the month of the survey.

"Consistent feedback from families over the past eight years shows their concern and sense of powerlessness in their relationships with the school systems. Ironically, school personnel reflect the same sense of hopelessness," said Miller-Heyl.

The Family-School Bridge program will recruit children who are 5 to 7 years old, two parental-role adults for each child, teachers or potential teachers, counselors and administrators from participating school districts.

The parents and teachers together will participate in activities that increase self-efficacy, responsibility, communication and social skills, child development knowledge, decision-making and reasoning skills. They’ll also learn about factors that affect academic achievement such as learning styles.

The children, who are kindergarten to second-grade students, will participate in an age-appropriate educational program. The program includes activities that enhance their social-cognitive skills, self-efficacy, responsibility and communication skills.

DARE to be You is part of the Colorado State Cooperative Extension youth development and 4-H program. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant supporting the project totals $1,246,596 and is given by the Extramural Prevention Research Program. The grant will cover 100 percent of the costs of the project.