In K.C., ‘Prevention Works’

By Ellen Flax — November 08, 1989 7 min read

Kansas City, Mo--Recognized as one of the few drug-education programs to undergo rigorous scientific evaluation, Project Star in the Kansas City, Mo., area has been heralded as one of the most promising efforts in the nation’s war on drugs.

Already well known to drug-education specialists, the program received an added boost in September when President Bush spotlighted Project Star as a model in his national anti-drug strategy.

The recognition comes as schools across the nation are stepping up their efforts to make drug-education classes more meaningful by helping students develop the social skills they need to resist drugs.

Currently, the U.S. Education Department estimates that about 80 percent of all districts offer drug-education classes.

But the problem is that little is known about the effectiveness of most programs, drug-education experts agree.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” said Joel Moskowitz, an adjunct associate professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. “I haven’t seen any compelling evidence coming out of any line of research.”

Despite that fact, however, the amount of federal money earmarked for drug education has grown during the past few years--from $200 million in 1987 to $354.5 million this year. And, under the drug proposal the Congress is currently considering, schools would receive $549 million in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

60,000 in Program

This fall, about 60,000 adolescents in the area surrounding this Midwestern city, in both Missouri and Kansas, are participating in Project Star, or Students Taught Awareness and Resistance.

Developed by researchers at the University of Southern California, the community-based program tries to alter the attitudes of 7th- and 8th-grade students toward the so-called “gateway drugs"--tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.

Classroom exercises and homework assignments, which often require students to discuss drug-related issues with their parents, encourage students to decide for themselves the consequences of using these substances.

“While we don’t come out and say, ‘Don’t use it,’ that’s what the message is,” said Stacey Daniels, a research specialist at Project star. “We’re more subtle about it.”

So far, researchers are encouraged that the message is getting through.

On the strength of their extensive program evaluation, researchers believe they can prove the program has reduced student use of tobacco and marijuana below expected levels for as long as three years after the youngsters have taken the classroom lessons.

They acknowledge, however, that the program so far has shown little effect on students’ alcohol use.

William Bukoski, the program director of the intervention section in the prevention-research branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which provides some of the program’s funding, said:

“It’s a marvelous program that documents the efficacy of a comprehensive approach. It proves that prevention works.”

In contrast, an official with the U.S. Education Department said the department has mixed feelings about the program because it does not explicitly advocate a “no use” message.

“People in the field believe that it does advocate a ‘responsible use’ message, which conflicts with our policy of supporting curricula that support no-use messages,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

‘Are You Chicken?’

Project Star currently serves 7th- and 8th-grade students in 15 public-school districts and many private schools in the Kansas City area.

The 7th-grade students are guided through a 13-lesson sequence that encourages them to think about the consequences of drug use, and teaches them methods to resist peer pressure to begin using drugs. Students are given five additional lessons the following school year.

The program places an emphasis on such interactive activities as role playing.

During a recent class at Butler Dwyer Junior High School in Blue Springs, Mo., for example, J.R. Garrett, a social-studies teacher, discussed the ways his students could resist peer pressure. Closely following the curriculum, Mr. Garrett pretended to be a teenager who was offering his friends a drink.

“Would you like a beer?” he asked.

“I would ask if you had a Dr Pepper,” one girl said.

“I would say, ‘No thanks,’ and leave,” said another.

“Are you chicken?” asked Mr. Garrett, still pretending to be a teenager. “Come on, you big baby.”

“I’d rather be a live chicken than a dead turkey,” one boy said determinedly.

All star instructors, who usually teach health-education or science classes, must undergo a two-day training session. During these sessions, they are led through all aspects of the curriculum, including the examples they should give their students to illustrate a point.

Each star school has a parents’ committee, which plans anti-drug activities and helps create and revise their schools’ anti-drug policies. Parents, as well as other community members, can participate in a two-day training session on drugs and alcohol designed by star.

The program’s implementation has been entirely funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Marion Laboratories Inc., a local pharmaceutical firm. Mr. Kauffman, who is the chairman of the board of Marion and a co-owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball team, said he was spurred to take action after three of his players were arrested for buying drugs in 1983.

He hired a former local school administrator as an employee of Marion Laboratories, and told him to find a model drug-prevention program. Classroom instruction using the USC curriculum began in the fall of 1984.

“I don’t like to give money for bricks and mortar for a building,” said Mr. Kauffman, who has spent an estimated $750,000 on the program. “I would prefer to invest it in people.”

Lower Usage Rates

From the very beginning, Project Star was designed as a research project. About 8,000 students received instruction, and 7,000 others served as a control group.

Since then, the USC researchers have monitored the use of drugs and alcohol by about 1,200 students in both the treatment and control groups, and they survey an additional 20,000 students each year who have been in the program.

In addition to responding to an anonymous survey, students are asked to take a breathalyzer test to determine the amount of carbon monoxide, which would indicate drug use, in their lungs.

The results, they said, have been encouraging.

Of the students who took the classes in 1984, 25.4 percent reported three years later that they had smoked during the previous month. In contrast, 34.7 percent of the control group had smoked during the previous month when they were questioned in 1987.

In 1987, 13 percent of the treatment students reported using marijuana during the previous month, compared with 19 percent of the control group.

Treatment students were also less likely to use alcohol than control students in 1987, but researchers said the difference between the two groups was not statistically significant.

The USC researchers have used the results to begin an identical program, called i-star, in the Indianapolis area. The program, which is in its third year, has not yet produced conclusive longitudinal data.

It is not clear, many observers have said, whether the program will work equally well for all students, or whether it can be as successful in all communities.

“I think the program has promise, especially in delaying use among moderate-risk kids,” said Mr. Moskowitz. But for children who are already using drugs, he said, “this is not the type of program that will reach them.”

Mr. Moskowitz, who reviews grant applications for federal drug programs, called the star results “modest.” He said it was too soon to say whether this or any other program should be used as a national model.

“There is still a lot of work to be done” in program evaluation, he said.

‘Speaks to Anyone’

Teachers said they thought the program has had a positive influence on their students.

“Project Star gave them the ability to say ‘no’ in a big, methodical way to whatever they don’t want to do,” said Wilma J. Taylor, the health and physical-education coordinator for the Kansas City, Mo., school district. “It’s a shared experience for kids and their parents.”

Said Debbie Tessendorf, a health- and physical-education instructor who teaches Project Star at Northeast Middle School in Kansas City, “I really think the students enjoy it a lot. It really speaks to anyone.”

Ms. Tessendorf, who said her students are mostly poor and come from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, especially seem to enjoy the parts of the curriculum that allow them to perform a rap song and a commercial.

Less successful, she said, are the homework sections that require the students to discuss drug and alcohol use with their parents or an adult. Because some of her students lack a strong adult influence in their lives, she said, some are unable to complete the assignments, she said.

“We’re lucky to get the answers,” she said, adding that she often has to arrange for students to interview teachers instead of a parent to complete an assignment.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as In K.C., ‘Prevention Works’