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Valley students work together for change

Posted: Tuesday, Feb 7th, 2012

Courier staff writer

VALLEY - Middle school students all over the Valley are working together to shape their environments for a healthier future.

The Colorado School of Public Health in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center and Valley school districts are creating healthier learning atmospheres in Valley schools through the Working Together Project. The service-learning project uses positive youth development and environmental change to increase healthy eating, physical activity and emotional well being while aiming to decrease teen pregnancy, substance abuse and injury.

In 2009, the project began preparing for its 2011 launch in the Valley under the guidance of Dr. Elaine Belansky, of the University of Colorado-Denver. This school year, Sanford, Sangre de Cristo and Moffat middle schools included the project in their curriculums. Over the next two years, Centennial, Sierra Grande, South Conejos, Alamosa, Monte Vista, Sargent and Center school districts will introduce the project to the regular class schedule.

The project is built on participant input. Students are asked what they think about their learning environments. District staff and community members are then invited to comment on the students' recommendations. Together they identify one area of concern and hopefully create a long lasting, positive environmental change and positive character building opportunity.

On Tuesday night, Sanford and Sangre de Cristo project participants shared their first semester experiences with project affiliates and community members at The San Luis Valley Pizza Company in Alamosa.

"My favorite part was making something happen," said Sangre de Cristo Eighth Grader James Casados. "I like going out and doing it."

The Sangre de Cristo project focused on improving a student's connection to education.

"Peer pressure and poor mental health are things that could spark checking out of school," Casados said. "Being the small school that Sangre de Cristo is we are all pretty close. The project made us stand against peer pressure and defend each other against peer pressure."

In order to improve the Sangre de Cristo student's educational connection, a two-fold solution has been enacted: a yearly, monthly and weekly syllabus is being posted on the district's website and the middle school student council is seeking independence from the high school.

"I think that we have planted our roots far enough and they will stay in effect for a number of years," Casados said. "They key word is working together. We have strengthened our ability."

In the south, the project focused on developing non-competitive after school programs to dissuade students from experimenting with alcohol, drugs and tobacco now and in the future.

"There was no prevention plan," said Tami Valentine, the Sanford music and physical education teacher that has taken the project curriculum under her wing. "The school has lacked activities for kids that are not in sports."

In response to the Sanford project's goals, the school board is moving forward with a 2012/2013 policy mandating two non-competitive after school activities are aligned with the sports seasons.

"Kids don't know how to make good decision against drugs," said Sanford Seventh Grader D.J. Crowder. "There is a lack of decision making skills with tobacco and alcohol."

Activities Sanford students are considering include zumba, fly tying and archery.

"The students are talking about things that matter to them," Valentine said. "They are leaving their footprint on the school without using spray paint."

Belansky, too, is leaving a footprint. She has been working with Valley school districts for over a decade.

"This is my community," Belansky said. "We are not coming in, researching and leaving. I am constantly here."

She said that the project is not her decision, but the choice of the community.

"We want these students to wake up to what is happening in the community and that they are capable of making things better," Belansky said. "The university brings the latest research and best practices to the table and the community brings local knowledge and experience. This marriage is what has made the project really successful."

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