Building self-esteem yields substantial results in reducing the rates of unwanted teen pregnancy, school dropout and academic failure -- primary goals of the Teen Outreach Program (TOP).
Lee Junior High School in Woodland, California; and other sites, United States of America
Unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmissible infections among youth.
Helping youth avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmissible infections is a challenge that faces communities around the world. Children having children is a problem with dire consequences for both the young people themselves and for society as a whole. Young people with children have sharply reduced education and employment opportunities and a poorer quality of life. Meeting their needs places a severe burden on both families and public resources. Moreover, sexually active teens are at great risk of contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Building self-esteem yields substantial results in reducing the rates of unwanted teen pregnancy, school dropout and academic failure -- primary goals of the Teen Outreach Program (TOP). The program was developed in 1978 by Brenda Hostetler, director of pregnancy prevention programs in the St. Louis schools. In 1981, the Junior League of St. Louis -- an affiliate of the Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI) -- and the Danforth Foundation began sponsoring the program with the goal of reducing teen pregnancy and increasing the rate of high school graduation. In 1984, the Junior League of St. Louis launched a national demonstration program that was taken over in 1987 by the AJLI. The program is now being operated by the Cornerstone Consulting Group, a national consulting firm based in Houston that specializes in health and human service projects.
Today, TOP is a comprehensive program designed to help adolescents develop a positive self-image, effective life management skills, and achievable goals. Its major features include a classroom component with facilitated discussion and a volunteer community service experience. The classroom component promotes the development of decision-making and communication skills and addresses issues such as relationships, peer pressure, family problems and life options. It provides a supportive environment in which the students do most of the talking and the facilitators relate to the students in a compassionate and non-judgmental manner. The community service component enhances the students' sense of self-worth and enables them to see themselves as valuable, contributing members of their communities -- help-givers rather than help-seekers. Moreover, volunteer work, unlike paid work, provides the students with the opportunity to develop basic job skills without increasing their financial independence at such a young age and weakening parental control. Both the volunteer component and classroom discussions have been identified as key elements in TOP's success.
The nine-month program is usually integrated into the curriculum of public schools but is also implemented as an out-of-school program in settings where teenagers routinely meet. When schools or community service organizations donate staff and time, the costs can be as low as $100 per student (in a class of 25).
In 1991, AJLI selected California as the site for its first statewide model for institutionalizing and replicating TOP. One of the sites where the program is being successfully implemented is Lee Junior High School in Woodland, California. Located 20 miles northwest of Sacramento, this semi-rural community suffered a severe blow when two of its major employers -- a chemical and a food-processing plant -- closed down and drove many families into poverty and unemployment.
Of the area's two junior high schools, Lee serves the more economically distressed segment of the population. Barry Cooper, the principal, is no stranger to hardship and knows from personal experience what many of his students and their families are facing. TOP was started at Lee in 1993 when the school's dropout rate reached 40%. While the program is usually directed at high school students, at Lee it is being used in the seventh and eighth grades.
The program began with an assessment of community needs and opportunities for student volunteer service. Since transportation is a problem, the placements had to be within walking distance of the school. Current placements include the neighborhood Head Start center and several other preschools, a nursing home, and the local animal shelter. At the Head Start center, students help with lunch, children's activities, administrative tasks, and special projects. "It's fun, and I like working with the kids and helping fix the toys," says one eighth-grader. To the extent possible, students are given their choice of community service sites, where they spend one hour a week during regular school hours.
The students at Lee are eager to participate in the program. "On the TOP days we noticed that the rate of absenteeism in the TOP class dropped to almost zero," observes Mr. Cooper. Moreover, some of the TOP students have continued their community service activity during their summer break. Under his leadership the school has become a caring community, not just for the students but for the entire neighborhood. It is now a place where people can come for low-cost health insurance, California's "Foodshare" program, after-school recreational activities, and parent education.
The Teen Outreach Program is currently being implemented in more than 120 schools and other sites throughout the United States. National data indicate that the program has resulted in statistically significant reductions in teen pregnancy and school failure. In the twelve years ending in 1996, TOP participants averaged an 11% lower course failure rate, a 14% lower school suspension rate, a 33% lower teen pregnancy rate, and a 60% lower school dropout rate than among comparison students. A recent University of Virginia study shows that TOP reduces teen pregnancy and school failure rates by 40% among participants compared to demographically similar non-participants.
The Wyman Center
In 1987, the report of the National Research Council's Panel on Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing, Risking the Future, named TOP as one of the only three teen pregnancy prevention programs with any documented success.
The first academic article on TOP, "School-Based Prevention of Teenage Pregnancy and School Dropout: Process Evaluation of the National Replication of the Teen Outreach Program, " was published in December 1990 in the American Journal of Community Psychology.
TOP was featured in the May 29, 1995 issue of Newsweek in an article on "What Works", and in the December 27, 1997 issue of U.S. News and World Report in an article on "How to Reduce Teen Pregnancy."
An evaluation of TOP was published in the August 1997 issue of Child Development.
Contact Information as of August 2010:
Claire L. Wyneken
Senior Vice President, Wyman Institute for Teen Development
600 Kiwanis Drive
Eureka, MO 63025
(T) (636) 549-1236
(F) (636) 938-5289
Original Information Assistance:
Mr. Barry Cooper, Principal
Lee Junior High School
520 West Main Street
Woodland, CA 95695