Taking time to talk.
BLUE RIVER - A drizzly, cool day has the McKenzie School District gym packed with middle schoolers passing their lunch period in a frenzy of basketball, chase and chatter.
David Allender keeps an eye on things while students stop by to talk with him - some about the chess club that he is helping start at school, others to ask more about what Allender does with kids who are in trouble when he's at his other job as a juvenile probation officer down the river in Eugene.
Four days a week for the past three years, Allender has spent his work day in the McKenzie district under a Safe Schools Healthy Students grant aimed at improving child development and crime prevention efforts in 13 rural school districts in Lane County.
The three-year grant ends with this school year, to the chagrin of Allender and other McKenzie district officials who say the coordination of experts from a wide range of agencies brings stability to troubled families and keeps their kids in school, off drugs and on track.
"It's sad to me that the grant is ending," Allender says. "It's unfortunate there isn't stable funding, especially with something like this that really has benefits."
But there is a silver lining, says Kathryn Henderson, a prevention specialist with the Lane Education Service District who applied for the $6 million grant on behalf of all rural schools in the county.
Over the past three years, each district has had a chunk of grant money to build a customized network of law enforcement, mental health counselors, teachers and others. They created specialized classes for students at risk of dropping out, and launched drug and alcohol education programs.
The end of the grant will be a step backward for rural schools, Henderson says. But districts will at least have had the experience of trying new approaches, will have the history of success to motivate school boards to try new things when it's time to set spending priorities.
"We really have increased their understanding and experience to implement programs that really do make a difference. Each district has made this money work for them," Henderson says.
The money came with two big strings attached: it could only be used on services that research shows to be effective; and data had to be collected to determine whether the efforts increased academic performance and attendance while decreasing disciplinary problems in school and juvenile crime in the community.
For example, several schools built programs around the "Skills for Success" model, says Pamela Yeaton, an evaluation specialist for the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior.
The model identifies students at risk of dropping out and provides an alternative education classroom. In that setting, the students are focused on correcting poor attitudes and habits that cause their behavior problems. Teachers also focus on specific academic problems to get students back into regular classrooms.
Mental health services for such things as depression also turned out to be effective in helping students better manage their lives and communicate with their families, says Yeaton, who is evaluating data from the rural schools for a report about the effectiveness of their three-year efforts.
"Evidence is that the intervention increased grades, increased attendance and decreased (disciplinary) office referrals. I've definitely seen benefit," says Yeaton.
The 270-student McKenzie District set a perfect example for involving families and students in fixing problems, Henderson and Yeaton say.
Allender says he started his work with the district by using his "outsider" status to approach families who had become estranged from, or in conflict with, the district. He tried to resolve their issues so they could be more supportive of their children's education, and of the district as a whole.
But he soon wore many hats as teachers, administrators and community members began drawing on his more than 20 years of experience working in youth shelters, residential treatment programs, mental health crisis counselling, family therapy and as a juvenile probation officer.
He learned of the special challenges facing McKenzie students. For example, the sheer size of the district hampers after-school socializing, fostering potential isolation that may tempt students into drug and alcohol abuse. It all comes together in the schools.
While the school and community networked with Allender, he networked in return - evaluating students for special classroom help and advising teachers when an individual student began misbehaving or falling behind.
A frequent collaborator with Allender is McKenzie teacher Cliff Richardson, who oversees the district's new alternative education classroom for students with special behavior or academic needs. Richardson's classroom - the Eagles Youth Reconnection and Intervention Services (EYRIE) - also is in jeopardy at the end of the grant.
Richardson, a graduate of the district whose parents also were McKenzie grads, finds frustration and reward in the job. The challenge, he says, is to deal with individual students and stay flexible enough to meet changing needs.
"To me, it's a matter of showing people you care. If you do that, you get a positive response," Richardson says. "A lot of students have a lot of home issues. It takes awhile to get some of these kids responding. We are a work in progress. Three years, it seems we're just getting started."
McKenzie officials have been looking for ways to continue what has been accomplished with their grant, but funding is scarce, says Elaine Bryson, the district's grants coordinator.
"This was a huge need. It came at a time when all our counselling services were cut. It was a perfect match," Bryson says.
Allender says he is confident the work begun by the grant will continue at some level. "People will pick up slack. I'm sure certain aspects of what I do will be picked up. Other aspects won't," he says. "But people will go on."
David Allender, 52
Occupation: Juvenile counselor/probation officer
Assignment: Has worked three years in a rural school under a federal grant to promote healthy child development and to prevent violence and alcohol and drug abuse.
Lesson learned: "I've gained a full appreciation for the hard work and dedication, the genuine care and concern, that school staff have for their students."
ODE TO A P.O.
"Thanks for coming to our room
And not being a voice of doom...
You counsel all the kids and still have time to play
A rousing game of bball just about every day.
Now you've taught us all the ropes
About how to keep our hopes ...
You said, `Say no to drugs.'
And, `Don't hang out with thugs.'
And if we stay in school
We won't turn into fools."
- for David Allender
by a McKenzie District middle-schooler
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|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Oct 24, 2005|
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