Follow the Leader

Elementary students listen up when teenage teachers present the facts about alcohol use

Seven years ago, when Mike and Sharon Conley provided start-up funds for an alcohol prevention program at their alma mater, North High School in Minneapolis, the task of recruiting a handful of students to serve as the program’s first student-teachers proved challenging.

By the following semester, however, 30 students had signed up for Protecting You/Protecting Me. And today, North High School students are wait-listed for the program: eager to teach younger students about protecting themselves from drug and alcohol use and other risky behaviors.

“The success of Protecting You/Protecting Me is phenomenal and contagious,” says Mike Conley, a former chairman of the Hazelden Foundation Board of Trustees. Through the Conley Family Foundation, Mike and his wife, Sharon, support a number of innovative prevention efforts in North Minneapolis’s inner-city neighborhoods.

Due to the persistence and expertise of the coordinator, health educator Brenda Corbin, the program has expanded to five Minneapolis high schools. Now 119 high-school-age student-teachers make weekly visits each semester to elementary schools across the city, providing younger students with information and tools to protect themselves from alcohol use and other high-risk behaviors. This next school year, teen teams will be in place in all of the Minneapolis Public High Schools.

Early education

Marty Harding, director of training for Hazelden Publishing, was instrumental in implementing the Protecting You/Protecting Me program in the Minneapolis Public Schools. According to Harding, the risk for alcohol and other drug use increases dramatically when children enter the sixth grade.

“To be effective in preventing adolescent alcohol use, we need to educate children in grades 1–5,” Harding explains.

She credits a small but devoted group of donors to the program’s success.

“Mike and Sharon Conley were very patient in the beginning; they had a long-term vision of what they wanted and were committed to making the program successful," said Harding. "Then, at crucial junctures in the process, Pam and Mike Sime, a Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation board member; Sally Guillet, a longtime prevention supporter and board president of the Wayside House treatment center for women and children; and an anonymous donor stepped in with funding. Schools across the country have virtually no funding for prevention, so donors with a heart for children and prevention can make an incredible difference. We are so grateful to these generous donors.”

A win, all around

Effective prevention efforts are designed to reach students when it matters most—during the years when they are healthy and growing. Young students learn about the effects of alcohol on the brain, increase their commitment to not use, and learn strategies for protecting themselves in risky situations, such as avoiding car rides with drivers who have been drinking.

Perhaps most important, says Conley, the lessons of Protecting You/Protecting Me are presented by high school students.

“The younger students listen differently when a high school student—someone they look up to—tells them it’s not cool to use alcohol.”

But it’s what Conley calls “the collateral value” that gives Protecting You/Protecting Me stellar status. Minneapolis high school students who participate in the program earn an average GPA of 3.50–3.66, achieve a 100 percent graduation rate, and go on to college in record numbers (94 percent at last count).

“This is truly a life-transforming experience for high school students, and it pays lifelong dividends,” says Conley. “It’s a game changer.”

Learn about the prevention solutions available for schools from Hazelden Publishing.
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