Last January, Sara Darmstadt started a new position as a middle school drug prevention and safety coordinator in Piscataway Township, New Jersey. The scope of her job description seemed daunting. Under a contract from the U.S. Department of Education, Darmstadt had been hired to spearhead the development of a comprehensive plan for preventing and responding to a range of school problems—including violence, school crime, and abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. She would help gather data on these problems and assist schools in adopting research-based prevention and evaluation strategies. Finally, she would work to improve communication and collaboration between schools and communities.
During her first week on the job, Darmstadt turned for advice to a WebBoard run by the National Training Center for Middle School Drug Prevention & School Safety Coordinators, based at EDC/HHD. She wrote:
… I just started this past Monday. I am feeling extremely overwhelmed with all I need to know. If you have any suggestions on what I should focus on in my first few weeks, I would be very appreciative.
The WebBoard serves 600 middle school coordinators (MSCs) around the country who—like Darmstadt—have been funded by the Department of Education. Within a week, she had received a half-dozen responses from her distant colleagues, who offered support and advice.
One responded with an eight-point outline of beginning steps, including conducting a needs assessment, a resource assessment, and focus groups with parents, students, and teachers. Another shared her experience in joining community groups and coalitions. And several advised Darmstadt to move slowly and to build on the work already in progress. As one MSC put it, “Some schools already have some specific ideas in mind and are ready to implement strategies, but maybe just need a catalyst to get things going. That’s where you come in.”
Catalyst is a good way to describe the role of the MSCs, who have been funded by the Department of Education to help schools and communities start the process of implementing research-based prevention strategies. The role of the MSCs—and the National Training Center—grows out of a series of studies showing that a strong leader can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of a school-based prevention program. For example, in a longitudinal study of 19 drug prevention programs, the U.S. Department of Education found that prevention program coordinators can play an important role in the implementation of effective programs—provided that they can devote significant time to their role. The study also found that the most common barrier to fully implementing prevention programs is a lack of leadership by the coordinator.1
Darmstadt credits the training she’s received and the colleagueship of her fellow MSCs with helping her develop a leadership plan for her work in the district. “My fellow MSCs are an extremely talented and resourceful group of people,” says Darmstadt. “They have helped me create a vision of where I would like Piscataway to be in 2003.”
“The job of the MSCs is to link schools and communities together to create change,” says Yvette Lamb, director of training for the National Training Center. “I think of them as change agents. Some come from social service backgrounds, some from teaching, and some from research. The common thread is that they are all passionate people. And they all believe they can make a difference in kids’ lives.”
The Department of Education funded the first group of 300 MSCs in the fall of 1999 and a second group of 300 in 2000. A third group will be funded in the fall of 2001. The job of the National Training Center is to provide training and continuing education to all 900 MSCs. The Center offers a range of services to assist the coordinators in building their leadership skills and their knowledge of effective prevention programs and strategies. The foundation of the training is a five-day workshop delivered by EDC/HHD staff and partners to 100 coordinators at a time-working in both small and large groups. Before focusing on the role of the coordinator, the workshop begins with a discussion of the schools’ role in effective prevention: Schools should serve as the hub of community prevention activities for youth, rather than trying to solve these problems on their own. To illustrate the concept of school-linked approaches, the trainers offer a collection of scenarios like this one:
After and sometimes before school, a handful of middle school students regularly head to a nearby park to get high. They purchase most of their drugs nearby from older teenagers, young adults, and in some cases older brothers or sisters. Teachers suspect drug use because they have noticed a dramatic drop in school performance among most of these same students. Neighbors know where kids are getting the drugs but have not said anything to the police or school.
“Most parents only think about prevention issues at the time of a crisis, but typically MSCs are not working in crisis situations,” says Lamb. “The MSC can raise awareness about prevention and help improve school and community connections. What better place for schools and communities to come together than on creating safe and drug-free schools?”
Those kinds of connections were evident at a June 14th meeting when MSCs Chandra Banks Gooding and Kristen Handrickson briefed their coordinating committee on the progress they had made in the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Public Schools. The meeting was attended by committee members, including health and physical education teachers, a parent, a violence prevention coordinator from the Department of Public Health, and representatives from such community groups as the Peace Commission and the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Commission. The meeting was upbeat as Gooding and Handrickson reviewed a long list of accomplishments from the year, including the following:
- Piloting a language arts curriculum with a conflict resolution component
- Developing a seventh grade health curriculum focusing on violence prevention
- Conducting training for school-family liaisons
- Providing bullying and harassment workshops in several schools
- Running a very successful Cambridge Family Safety Day
Between spearheading these kinds of efforts, building relationships, and communicating results, MSCs can be pulled in many different directions, according to Lamb. “Schools also have a tendency to see the MSCs as just an extra pair of hands and to load them down with responsibilities that fall outside of the scope of their job description,” she says. The National Training Center addresses that challenge by providing the MSCs with very specific tools for designing and implementing school-linked interventions. The trainings take the concept of environmental change and break it down into a set of action steps and checklists that guide the MSCs through a gradual, data-supported process. For example, several sessions are devoted to a framework for individual, school, and community change.
“The initial training that we got from EDC/HHD has been extremely instrumental in our work,” says Penelope Williams, MSC at the Sarah Scott Middle School in Milwaukee. “We often consult the manual we got at the training-it provides us with a lot of validated data. We use it when we’re brainstorming and particularly when we’re talking to potential partners and funders from the community. We can say to people, We have this model program, we know it works, and we’d like you to join us on it. It helps us sell the programs, to bring other people on board.”
“The follow-up data on the workshops has been remarkably positive,” reports Wayne Harding, director of Social Science Research and Evaluation, Inc., an independent research organization that is evaluating the effectiveness of the National Training Center. “Virtually all of the participants had made significant progress.” Harding adds that the trainers rose to the challenge of engaging a diverse group of MSCs, who come to the job with a range of experience and skill. “I think they [the trainers] managed to accomplish this by striking an artful balance between didactic presentations and small-group work,” says Harding. “In the context of small groups, you can better tailor information to individual needs. You can also take advantage of the extensive talent and experience of the participants.”
The National Training Center is building on the success of the training with follow-up regional workshops, an active WebBoard, and a series of innovative online courses. The online events provide MSCs with the opportunity to go into greater depth on the topics covered in the face-to-face training-and to do so at their own pace and without having to travel. The online courses run for five days and combine readings, activities, and online discussions facilitated by EDC/HHD trainers.
While each community—and thus each MSC—has its own unique challenges, the MSCs come together regularly on the National Training Center’s WebBoard to share tips and simply to connect. “They have a real thirst for knowledge and connection,” says Lamb. “Sometimes they just want reassurance that they are on the right path, or the opportunity to ask a question and get an answer from a collection of colleagues.”
Topics Covered in the Five-Day Training Workshop
- Framework for Understanding School-Linked Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention
- Key School-Linked Strategies
- Assessing Needs and Assets in Your School and Community
- Designing Programs to Achieve Intended Outcomes
- Designing and Implementing Prevention Programs Based on Research
- Evaluating and Refining Program Efforts
- Using Technology to Maintain Connections and Locate Resources
- Planning Next Steps
Three Levels of Change
An excerpt from the National Training Center for Middle School Drug Prevention & School Safety Coordinators training manual:
Changing Individual Behavior
- Social and thinking skills education for all students
- Early identification, referral, and intervention for students and parents at risk
- Safe and supervised alternative activities for students at risk
Changing Schools and Classrooms
- Classroom restructuring for more engaging and interactive education environments
- School-community collaboration in program design and delivery
- Clear school policies to deter substance use and violence that can be integrated into more general school reform efforts
- Enforcement of school policies, with clear reward structure and unambiguous sanctions
- Schoolwide communication campaigns to influence school norms about substance use and violence
Influencing Community Change
- Community policies to limit availability of alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, and weapons in the community
- Enforcement of community policies to limit youth access to alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, and weapons
- Community-wide communication campaigns to influence community norms about substance use and violence
¹ Silvia, E.S., and Thorne, J. (1997). School-Based Prevention Programs: A Longitudinal Study in Selected School Districts. Executive Summary. Final Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Originally published on September 1, 2001