A focus on 'assets' to help students prosper

The banter could easily sound like an investment seminar. But when adults in these communities start talking assets, money is not the focus.

Instead, they're tossing around terms like "character," "purpose," and "restraint." They're tallying up hours spent on homework, assisting others, and participating in activities outside of school.

What the adults are after is helping young people sidestep challenges of peer pressure, drug use, or risky behavior.

Communities and schools around the United States are banding together to augment their "assets," characteristics that help teens build positive lives. The promoters of the "asset approach" say there are 40 building blocks for personal development that tend to be present in the lives of successful kids and absent for violent or substance-abusing ones. The effort doesn't wait until a child is in trouble.

"It has spread to every corner of the community," says Marianne Boyajian, president of the Naperville (Ill.) Home and School Association, of the asset approach in the Chicago suburb. "Virtually every major organization and all of the leaders in town are behind it."

The list of 40 external and internal assets is based on research by the Search Institute, an independent organization in Minneapolis (see box, left). Surveys of 1 million students over more than a decade have shown that just 1 percent of teens with 31 to 40 of these assets are involved with illicit drug use, whereas 42 percent of teens with 0 to 10 assets take illegal drugs. Similarly, only 6 percent of teens with 31 to 40 assets engage in violent behavior, whereas 61 percent of kids with 0 to 10 assets do.

Communities latch onto the asset approach in different ways. In Naperville, a local hospital did a wellness survey and found that teen destructive behavior needed attention. A committee that formed to address the behavior problems learned of the asset approach.

Ms. Boyajian became a believer and convinced the high school principal of its merit. As a result, students were given an assets survey and the results were discussed at an all-community retreat. Organizations ranging from the YMCA to the Chamber of Commerce came on board. The town now has an Asset Trustee Group, an Asset Action Team, and a paid coordinator.

How to get there

The asset approach in Naperville ranges from simple attitudinal changes and consciousness-raising to initiatives such as sending 80 varsity athletes to visit little league games and talk to parents about sportsmanship. High-schoolers will also visit downtown businesses to create community connections. A third effort, called First Class, sets aside class time for high school upperclassmen to talk to freshmen about drug abuse and other issues.

Kunar Patel is one such counselor. The junior at Naperville North High School carries a 4.4 GPA. "When I talk to students it shows the school cares about them. That's an asset. You never know if you're getting through to them, but it's important to try."

The asset approach has evolved in the past 10 years, and since it settled into an expanded list of 40 assets about five years ago, participation has skyrocketed. At last tally, 540 communities had participation in at least three "sectors" - for instance, schools, churches, or the parks and recreation department - up from 438 communities in 1999 and 293 in 1998.

"The reason the approach is so successful is that it gives everyone in the community a common language," says Judy Taccogna, director of education at the Search Institute. "It's very upbeat and pro-kid, as opposed to targeting problem kids and finding a fix for them, or assuming the counselor down the hall will take care of it. This is a way for the whole community to play a role and prevent problems before they arise."

Students routinely identify several assets as weak in their lives, targeting the absence of adult, nonparent relationships and a caring school climate.

In Georgetown, Texas, earlier this year, Principal Randy Adair noted a similar asset deficiency at Benold Middle School and decided on a method for tackling it.

In a meeting with teachers, he taped the name of each student to the wall and had the teachers put a sticker next to kids with whom they felt they had a relationship. Some kids had a lot of stickers, about half had a few, and the other half had none.

The 74 teachers got the point. Mr. Adair asked each to put a star next to the name of a child they weren't close to and try to change that. By the next morning, at least 74 kids were on their way to having an unofficial mentor.

The effort continues under Adair's direction. "For us, the asset approach has been the answer," Adair says. "It's practical and research-based. The kids respond to it and the community is committed to it."

Georgetown sent 33 delegates to a national assets convention, including school administrators, police, teachers, volunteer-agency officials, and healthcare workers.

One key to the success of the asset approach seems to be keeping the structure flexible. The Search Institute plants the seed, but lets local communities tend the garden. "We don't have a 'program' and don't want one," Ms. Taccogna says. "It would be too easy to use for a few weeks and put back on the shelf. We want the asset approach to evolve in the community."

Does it ignore risk factors?

Not everyone agrees an unstructured approach is the most effective means of dealing with troubled teens.

J. David Hawkins is director of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington and co-developer of Communities That Care, a prevention program adopted by more than 500 communities. While lauding the overall efforts of the Search Institute, he views its approach as addressing only half the issue - protective factors - while generally ignoring the risk factors. "The Search Institute is really saying we don't want to talk so much about risk factors. Communities don't like to hear about it because it's negative. So they focus on assets. We're concerned because it ignores a large part of what we know to promote outcomes in children."

The Communities That Care approach builds a diagnostic profile of a community to identify its risk factors, then lets the community select from a menu of 90 scientifically tested programs to meet its specific needs. Mr. Hawkins recalls the rush of drug-awareness presentations in schools in the 1970s which, some critics charge, led to increased drug use among teens. "What we have learned painfully over the last 20 or 30 years is that we need programs that have been shown in well-controlled studies to have demonstrated effect."

Whatever the methodology, middle school principal Adair says one thing is essential: "We focus a lot on programs and practices, delivery of instruction, and the environment of the school," he says. "But if you don't have people loving kids, your programs and practices are a waste of time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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