PLATTSBURGH - Educators, health and human service providers and members of local law enforcement are teaming up to make schools safer.
Those behind the local implementation of the national Safe Schools/Healthy Students program, known as Communities of One, gathered together for a press conference April 23 at Plattsburgh International Airport.
Project administrator Wanda McQueen gave an overview of the program, which was described as "a federal initiative to reduce the risk of school violence and the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs while promoting strong mental health among students and their families. "
The program began on the national level in 1999, McQueen explained, in response to an increase in school violence. The press conference itself was held three days following the 10-year anniversary of the deadly Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, a point McQueen underscored as a need for early intervention in an effort to prevent similar violent acts.
"Focusing primarily on the elementary level, we are taking a preventative and proactive approach versus an approach of reaction and enforcement to problems that manifest on the middle and high school levels," said McQueen.
The Communities of One project has already begun to be implemented in five participating school districts in Clinton and Essex counties - AuSable Valley, Moriah, Northern Adirondack, Saranac and Ticonderoga central schools. The schools have begun providing key services through partnerships with various community organizations, including Behavioral Health Services North, Champlain Valley Family Center, Childcare Coordinating Council of the North Country, Clinton County Community Services Board, Eastern Adirondack Health Care Network, Essex County Mental Health Agency, Substance Abuse Prevention Team and the sheriff's and probation department among the two counties.
The partnership consists of a five-element approach to provide the services, explained McQueen. The first element focuses on school violence prevention by providing such services as personal safety and character education workshops. The second element consists of drug use prevention and includes making a drug use prevention educator available one day a week to the participating schools. The third element deals with social and emotional support for students through after-school programs like "Families and Schools Together" and "Adventure-Based Learning."
The fourth element focuses on mental health services and, for the first time, said McQueen, will provide all elementary students within the five school districts, with free, voluntary emotional wellness screenings. In addition, parents who wish to have their child receive services off-site will be given that option as well, she said.
The fifth and final element consists of a focus on early childhood development and emotional learning. Free developmental screenings, weekly parent-child learning groups and parenting education are being offered to handle that component, said McQueen.
NAC elementary school counselor Christine Brudvig, who also serves as the school's Communities of One site coordinator, said she's excited about the project. The Adventure-Based Learning portion of the project has been in place since early March and has already made an impact by teaching students how to cooperate with others through various group activities.
"Our student participants and their families have shared very positive comments about the program," said Brudvig. "The children are excited to be engaged with activities and our teachers are observing an increase in the confidence level of students."
Other programs such as "Too Good for Drugs" and "Keep a Clear Mind," which are school-based and home-based drug education and prevention programs, respectively, will begin with the 2009-10 school year. Families and Schools Together, a family strengthening and parent involvement program, is also expected to be implemented this fall.
"We are eager to see the impact of these research-based programs," said Brudvig.
Mary LoTemplio, a school counselor and site coordinator with the Saranac Central School District, said in addition to the benefits it has for students and their families, the program has also made school personnel such as herself better acquainted with service providers in the community.
"I've come to a greater understanding of how agencies in our community work," she said. "I know, going down the road, whatever happens with the grant, were are going to be able to work together in a better way, a more productive way, to benefit our students."
The Saranac school district is also examining hosting a two-week summer program that will follow the Adventure-Based Learning format, added LoTemplio.
"We're very excited. Lots of things are in motion and I just can't wait to see what's going to happen down the road," said LoTemplio.
The Communities of One project is being funded by a $4.3 million grant received by Champlain Valley Educational Services through the U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services. The grant will be utilized over the next five years to formally develop a "community-wide infrastructure that will ensure better coordination of resources, programs and services," said McQueen. The project will undergo constant evaluation, with progress reports expected to be made on a regular basis, as early as this fall.