Children need to be surrounded by caring adults, including teachers and mentors, to make better choices that lead to more successful adult lives, first lady Laura Bush told a group of educators, academics, children, and religious leaders at the White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth last week.
“Outside of family, school is the most important part of a child’s life. And education is vital to helping America’s youth,” Mrs. Bush said in opening the Oct. 27 conference at Howard University here.
“Grandparents, teachers, mentors, pastors, and coaches can also support parents and help children make better choices that lead to a healthier and more satisfying life,” she added.
President Bush, who had announced the Helping America’s Youth initiative during his State of the Union Address in February, made brief remarks here and introduced Mrs. Bush, who is leading the effort. It is targeted at young people ages 8 to 17, and is focused in part on helping youths at risk of becoming gang members, especially boys.
As part of the initiative, Mrs. Bush hopes to spotlight successful prevention and intervention programs by focusing on the efforts of coaches, clergy, and mentors around the country, particularly those with programs tailored to boys. She also aims to educate parents and communities on the importance of programs that help steer boys away from trouble and toward academic development. (“First Lady Embraces Cause of Youths at Risk,” Feb. 23, 2005.)
At the conference, the president said Mrs. Bush hoped that the conference would “serve as a catalyst to continue to rally decent, honorable people who are working hard to make sure young Americans have a chance to realize the promise of this country.”
Even as the president and the first lady spoke about uplifting youth, outside the conference venue hundreds of students gathered at the the historically black university protested Bush administration policies with signs that said “Money for education, not money for war,” and “End occupation in Iraq.”
“We have a voice, we have visibility, why can’t we be heard?” they chanted.
Schools, Family, Community
The day long conference included a session on connecting with children at school, which was moderated by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
“Today’s children are at risk of falling victim to drugs, violence and crime. … Schools are a great place for intervention, a great place to build self-esteem and confidence,” Ms. Spellings said.
She said one of the most important tools for engaging children in learning was teaching them to read.
“Students who don’t read are at a far greater risk of dropping out,” she said.
Programs highlighted during the conference included the Good Behavior Game, which was developed by, among others, Sheppard Kellam, the director of the Center for Integrating Education and Prevention Research in Schools at the American Institutes of Research in Washington.
The game is based on research that links aggressive behavior starting as early as 1st grade to adolescent antisocial behavior, delinquency, and drug use. Mr. Kellam stressed the importance of intervening early to ensure students stay on the path to successful adulthood.
“The 1st grade is incredibly important to later academic, mental and behavioral health,” he said at the conference, which was attended by some 500 people.
Other participants urged the use of successful and proven intervention strategies to help children. Investing in such programs at the right time, said J. David Hawkins, a professor in the school of social work at the University of Washington in Seattle, could result in significant savings for taxpayers in future costs for the justice system, among other systems.
Mrs. Bush also unveiled the “Community Guide to Helping America’s Youth: An Assessment Tool for Youth Outreach,” a Web site where community members and schools can look for resources to help youth. The Web site is available at www.helping americasyouth.gov.
Conference attendees later said the focus of the initiative needed to be on creating opportunities, skills, and recognition for youths, not just intervention.
“My hope is that this is about more than trying to intervene,” Sheri Johnson, the director of programs for the National PTA, said in an interview. “We get so stuck on quick-fix programs, but youth and parents have figured out programs come and go.”
“Funding is going to be key,” Ronda Robinson, the executive director of Covenant House in Houston, a faith-based organization that works with runaway and homeless youths, said in an interview. “You can say great things but if there is no money to pull it off, what’s the point?”
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as White House ConvenesDiscussion on Youths