The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education is partnering with the Charlottesville and Albemarle County public school systems to implement a $6 million “Safe Schools/Healthy Students” grant from the U.S. departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice. The grant will support efforts in promoting healthy childhood development and preventing violence and substance abuse in schools.
With this funding, the Albemarle and Charlottesville public school systems will create teams of professionals in every middle and high school to offer structure and support to students who are at risk for bullying, substance abuse and behavior problems. These teams, comprising mental health clinicians, school counselors and others versed in bullying prevention, mental health and substance abuse, will work together to foster socially and emotionally supportive classrooms.
At the core of the initiative is a continuum of evidence-based programming to address critical needs. The program will extend to all schools the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, used worldwide to prevent bullying and improve student behavior; improve security equipment; and implement “restorative practices,” a form of discipline that encourages students to take responsibility for their behavior and places emphasis on building relationships rather than using punishment as a means of improving student behavior.
The program also focuses on establishing classroom rules for respectful peer behavior; teaching students to recognize physical, verbal and social forms of bullying; and identifying victims and perpetrators of bullying for counseling.
Additionally, the program will support alcohol and drug prevention activities by expanding in-school prevention and early intervention to seven previously unserved schools. The program will provide student behavioral, social and emotional supports by implementing “Responsive Classrooms” in four elementary schools. The Responsive Classrooms approach trains elementary school teachers to use specific practices designed to facilitate social-emotional competence. In higher grades, the Botvin Life Skills curriculum will be used to prevent substance abuse and poor conduct problems in high-risk students.
Finally, the program will offer early childhood social and emotional supports by creating a second 3-year-old High Scope classroom in the city and providing additional family support workers for publicly funded pre-schools in Charlottesville and Albemarle. The High Scope curriculum facilitates language and communication skills as well as social and emotional competencies that prepare children to succeed in school.
Education professor Dewey Cornell, an expert in school safety and youth violence prevention, and colleagues in the Curry School Programs in Clinical and School Psychology will work in partnership with Region Ten to provide and supervise the mental health clinicians.
“We in the Curry School are delighted to contribute to this new project, which is a tremendous opportunity to implement state-of-the art practices in an integrated and cohesive manner,” said Cornell, who also directs the Virginia Youth Violence Project.
The “Structure and Support” project focuses on five problem areas: economic disparity, youth violence and crime in the schools and community, race and socioeconomic achievement gap, family disruption and disorganization, and early initiation of risk behaviors.
Each year the “Safe Schools/Healthy Students” grant helps school systems nationwide create learning environments that are safe and healthy for students. In applying for these grants, school systems are required to identify evidence-based interventions that match needs revealed by data collected about their students and schools.
Over the last decade, a collaborative effort in Charlottesville and Albemarle provided data on the community’s strengths, as well as gaps in the services needed to create safe and supportive environments for students in the Charlottesville and Albemarle schools.
Compared to state averages, the community has a high rate of childhood poverty and juvenile delinquency, primarily concentrated in the city, and a high rate of children in foster care, child abuse investigations and teen alcohol use in both the city and county. These problems have an impact on student learning and create a challenge for the schools and community as a whole, Cornell said.
“We are very excited about the possibilities for our local public schools created by this grant,” said Pam Moran, superintendent of the Albemarle County Public Schools. “The Structure and Support project will be crucial in helping us ensure safe, respectful, and drug-free school environments, promote pro-social skills, and support healthy childhood development.”
“The community partnership supporting this program will expand our opportunities to address the full spectrum of student needs in our region,” said Rosa Atkins, superintendent of the Charlottesville schools. “We want to be sure that our students have everything they need to be successful.”
The school systems are also partnering with community organizations, including the Albemarle County Police Department, Charlottesville Police Department, Region Ten Community Service Board, the 16th District Court Services Unit and the Charlottesville/Albemarle Commission on Children and Families. The partnership explicitly recognizes that good parenting is critical and central to healthy child development, and all programs are designed to work closely with parents.
“Structure and support” is the best place to focus efforts, said Cornell, the lead researcher on a large-scale Virginia high school safety study that examined school safety and violence prevention practices in 296 high schools throughout the state. The latest findings of the study are available online.
The central theme of this project is that schools can foster healthy student development through a balance of disciplinary structure and personal support, which was a major finding from the Curry School’s Virginia High School Safety Study, Cornell said.