United Way says school program is changing attitudes about drugs

Johnstown Tribune-Democrat - May 1, 2016 - Chip Minemyer

In a region fighting a war against heroin and other drugs, a program in place at area middle schools might offer the best chance for making a stand.

Botvin LifeSkills Training started in four area school districts a few years ago, and is now taught in 23 districts across Cambria and Somerset counties.

Botvin focuses on three key educational areas related to reducing teen substance abuse: drug resistance, self-management and safe social skills.

An analysis by the program’s chief local funding agent – United Way of the Laurel Highlands – shows that area young people are retaining the messages that could save their lives.

The Pennsylvania Youth Survey is given annually in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12, United Way President and CEO Bill McKinney said – which helps the United Way track progress in Botvin training.

“This program is working and the students are retaining the information,” United Way intern Kristin Tavernaris said in a recent presentation to the organization’s board of directors.

Data show that young people at districts across the region score higher in key areas after experiencing the Botvin skills training.

“The hope is that as other students start in 6th grade and go through 7th and 8th grade, that they’ll have a tremendous amount of knowledge,” Tavernaris said.

McKinney loves to hear that a program is showing results.

He’s been preaching “outcomes- driven” assessment for years, and now has the United Way thinking “great programs” in addition to “great agencies.”

“We will be able to track these groups of kids,” McKinney said, “and show how this training has given them better life skills and less involvement in risky behavior.”

The national success of Botvin is impressive. A series of studies – including a 2014 survey by Penn State and Duke universities – showed that Botvin teaching had this impact on middle- schoolers:

• cut tobacco use by 87 percent and alcohol use by 60 percent.

• reduced marijuana use by 75 percent and methamphetamine use by 68 percent.

• cut pack-a-day smoking by 25 percent.

• showed a decrease in the use of inhalants, narcotics and hallucinogens.

In addition, kids who take the course have been found to exhibit less violent behavior and are less likely than other teens to engage in risky sexual activity that can lead to HIV and other health concerns.

Tavernaris said that although Botvin is currently only in local middle schools, plans are in the works to add “an elementary level process – so we can start them earlier.”

McKinney said the presence of the national initiative in our region ties directly to the United Way’s 2012 community needs assessment that show-ed the region held three priorities for programs and funding: early childhood development, parental engagement, and drug and alcohol abuse.

A key United Way goal is to eliminate substance abuse among area youth, McKinney said.

“We worked with many local organizations to develop long-term, sustainable action plans to address the socialchange initiatives – and work to address them to scale,” McKinney said.

That means “no Band-Aids or quick-fix gimmicks that might sound good but are a waste of time and money,” he said.

United Way of the Laurel Highlands recently completed its 2015-16 fundraising campaign. A record $1.44 million was raised – bolstered by a $500,000 matching commitment from the 1889 Foundation. The agency is now finalizing decisions about how to disperse those dollars into the community.

McKinney said the United Way has gotten better at funding programs – such as Botvin – that it knows have worked elsewhere and that show positive results locally.

“We track, measure and report on our progress,” he said. “We then can show progress toward our goal of changing the community.”