New Jersey Project: Help Close at Hand

By Deborah L. Cohen — March 15, 1989 9 min read
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Fred Brown Jr., principal of New Brunswick High School, initially had reservations about housing a “school-based” center on his campus to aid troubled teens--but he is now one of its strongest backers.

To underscore the point, he tells the story of one particular boy he referred to the program, which is part of a statewide effort to improve the delivery of counseling and other social services to young people.

The boy, academically talented but “overburdened” by family problems, had become involved with a local gang and had dropped out of school.

Mr. Brown was able to persuade him to return, and the school-based services team helped place him in an alternative program within the school system.

The boy’s gang activity has “subsided,” Mr. Brown reports. But he is convinced, the principal adds, that without the special intervention the boy “would have been lost--either to a rival gang or to drugs.”

Preventing such students from “falling through the cracks” is the primary goal of New Jersey’s $6-million “School-Based Youth-Services Program,” which experts consider the nation’s most comprehensive statewide effort to coordinate services for “at-risk” high-school students. The program was launched in January of 1987 and began operating last year.

Administered by the state department of human services in collaboration with the departments of education, labor, and health, the project offers counseling, health, and employment services for 13- to 19-year-olds at 29 sites at or near schools.

It is the brainchild of Commissioner of Human Services Drew Altman and Gov. Thomas H. Kean.

“At a very basic level,” Mr. Altman says, it responds to students’ call for “someone I can talk to whom I can trust.”

Describing the effort at a National Governors’ Association meeting last summer, Governor Kean said teenagers who were consulted in its design consistently asked for “someone who will listen and help us with making decisions.”

Teens served by the program often tell counselors, “‘If you hadn’t said such and such a thing, I don’t know what would have happened,”’ says June Rodriguez, director of a program site in Bayonne.

Local program directors report that they have intervened in at least 50 cases in which students had “serious suicidal” ideas.

“We believe lives have been saved,” Mr. Altman said.

‘Known People, Known Problems’

The project attempts to help students combat situations and behavior patterns that “delay or prevent their development as productive individuals,” according to program literature.

Although he hopes eventually to extend the program to children in the early grades, Mr. Altman says he is not convinced that “primary prevention” necessarily curbs the6incidence of later problems.

“As soon as a problem manifests itself, we have the capacity to deal with it head on” by focusing services on adolescents and teens, he said. “There you have known people with known problems.”

Those problems, officials say, are related to the following trends:

More than 40 percent of teenagers in the state who are between the ages of 12 and 17 have used drugs or alcohol.

An estimated 30,000 15- to 19-year-olds get pregnant each year.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers.

Some 20,000 drop out of school each year, at rates of up to 50 percent in urban areas.

‘Didn’t Fit the Reality’

To address such problems, “we believed we needed to fundamentally change the thrust of our efforts” for teenagers, Mr. Altman recalls.

The fragmentation in services offered by the education and human-services systems--as well as within the human-services field itself--"didn’t fit the reality of the kids we were dealing with,” he says. “It was a different address for every different problem.”

To promote a more unified approach, state officials require that applications for the new program be submitted by the school district and one or more nonprofit or public agencies in the community.

Plans submitted by the agencies must garner the support of local teachers’ unions; parent-teacher organizations; social-service, health, and employment agencies; and business councils. And although any applicant may serve as the managing agency, operations must be based in or near a school.

In addition, schools must agree to collaborate with project staff members in integrating existing school services into the program. And the applicants must detail plans to work with other local agencies that also offer relevant services.

Each site provides individual and family counseling, recreation, health and substance-abuse services, and job-counseling and placement programs. Projects may also offer other services--such as programs to recover dropouts or provide day care for teen parents--or provide referrals to other agencies offering that kind of assistance.

The projects’ own services must be available after school, on weekends, and during summers, and students must have parental consent to participate.

Under a federal “Youth 2000" grant, the state department of human services has also hosted conferences to promote similar efforts among schools and agencies not receiving state funds.

From Recreation To Crisis Intervention

Project locales and designs vary.

At New Brunswick High, for example, the activities are housed in a former band room that has been converted into a recreation center.

The room, open during lunch periods and after school, is equipped with tablegames, a television, and a kitchen. the periphery are offices for the program director, a psychologist, a social worker, and other part-time counselors and consultants.

More than 200 of the school’s 675 students have been active in the program, which also sponsors events ranging from health fairs and museum outings to fashion shows.

“We don’t want to be identified as a program only for ‘problem kids,”’ says Gail Reynolds, the program’s director.

The project coordinates health and dental screening, psychological counseling, and medical treatment with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. It offers career counseling and employment training in conjunction with a state-funded program and a local community college.

The program is also linked with the Greater New Brunswick Day-Care Council, which helps pregnant teens find child care, and the Civic League of Greater New Brunswick, which runs programs to attract dropouts back to school.

The managing agency for the program is New Brunswick Tomorrow, a nonprofit agency involved in the revitalization of the city, which subcontracts with the u.m.d.n.j. for clinical services.

‘Project Connect’

At “Project Connect” in Bayonne, the local school board administers the program but services are housed in a Police Athletic League building adjacent to a public school.

Project staff members provide “crisis intervention"; individual, group, and family counseling after school and on weekends; and referrals for other services, including:

A “peer-helping” program to bolster students’ communication skills and self-concept;

Tutoring in reading and math by certified teachers;

Preparation for the General Educational Development test;

Job counseling and training;

Recreational outings;

Child-care and health-care referrals, and

Substance-abuse rehabilitation.

The staff also works with the juvenile court system, which refers some offenders to the project as an alternative to probation.

The project, says its director, Ms. Rodriguez, provides guidance for such young people within firm boundaries, by demanding that they adhere to strict disciplinary policies and curfews.

“I’m a lot stricter than probation,” she says.

Parents generally are receptive to that approach and are willing to accompany students to counseling sessions, staff members say.

“Anybody who can provide the least bit of guidance for them, they are welcome,” Ms. Rodriguez adds.

Students coping with pregnancy, drug abuse, and family problems “are able to handle school better” as a result of the intervention, says Veronica E. Pintauro, a Bayonne 8th grader.

Stable Funding, Little Fanfare

While the state has launched no “definitive research study” to monitor the program’s long-term effects, Mr. Altman says, baseline data and “anecdotal” evidence have convinced officials that they are on the right track.

They attribute their success to a few key ingredients, topped by the Governor’s leadership.

Convincing the legislature to establish a $6-million line item in the state’s budget also secured the program a funding source “that wouldn’t fly out the door,” observes Neil Sternberg, a project director with the human-services department.

The state support in turn has spurred local efforts, Mr. Sternberg notes, prompting some districts to invest more than the 25 percent in matching funds they are required to contribute.

The cooperation of participating state agencies has been important, but not “essential” to the project’s success, according to Mr. Altman.

For example, the education department--which is immersed in school-reform efforts such as its attempt to take over the Jersey City schools--has taken a low profile in the youth initiative, observers note.

More significant, they say, is the collaboration the project has fostered between schools and community agencies. “Most action takes place at the local level,” points out Edward H. Tetelman, assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs in the human-services department.

Developing the program “quietly” also helped to avert publicity about elements regarded as controversial, Mr. Altman says.

Some Political Problems

Like school-based health services in other parts of the country, those offered by the project have drawn some opposition.

The state has taken a neutral stance, letting localities decide whether to include family planning in their programs and requiring that they pay for such services.

But officials note that a “vocal minority” of opponents have staged protests in some districts that offer family planning.

The project also has “thrown into relief legislative edicts that contradict” one another, says Roberta Knowlton, state coordinator for the Youth 2000 grant.

She notes that some mental-health agencies, for example, require that all information regarding treatment of their clients be kept confidential, while schools keep certain records open to parents and teachers.

New Brunswick officials have compromised by keeping outside referrals confidential and including “broad statements and recommendations” in their records without “details of the treatment,” Ms. Reynolds says.

Although the arrangement is working smoothly, initially school and project staff members were “tripping over each other,” she says. “It was overkill.”

Contractual arrangements also have posed some problems in programs operated by school districts, project officials say.

For example, management of one site was switched from a school board to a nonprofit agency when the board wanted to hire a school nurse as project director at union-scale wages that exceeded the salary cap set for the project.

We’re Making a Start’

Mr. Brown also notes that he personally had to overcome some skepticism before he grew comfortable with basing services at his school. His reservations, he says, included concern about the “image” that might be conveyed by the project’s association with a mental-health facility--and fear that his staff might feel threatened by the other professionals.

“I was worried that they would think I was saying, ‘I lack confidence in you,”’ he says.

As the project gains wide acceptance among educators and human-services personnel, however, a far more pressing concern is that more students will require services than the program can reach.

“My biggest fear is that the number will be too many” to serve, says Mr. Sternberg.

“I wouldn’t like to say that we won’t have a crisis we’re not able to handle,” Ms. Knowlton says. “I wouldn’t like to say we have our bases covered. But we’re making a start.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as New Jersey Project: Help Close at Hand


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