Salinas SS/HS Initiative Reaches Into Every Corner of the Community
One clear September morning, 3 years ago, a father pulled up to the curb in his minivan to drop off his sons at Salinas Union High School in northern California. A volunteer with the Parent Patrol, a service funded through the Federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) Initiative to ensure that children arrive at school safely, waved the man over and inquired about his choice to drop off his children in a dangerous, high-traffic area.
"I guess I wasn't thinking," said the man, who we will call Robert. "I had to get to work, and I had always just pulled to the side of the road." The volunteer asked him whether he had heard about the 14-year-old who was hit by a car in the same spot the previous week.
"I said I hadn't heard about it, but I began thinking about the kind of father who can't take a few more minutes to ensure his child's safety," said Robert.
The volunteer and Robert spent several minutes talking about traffic safety around the high school, which led to a discussion about violence around the school, bullying, drug abuse, and parenting. "I decided then and there, with the help of the Parent Patrol, that I did not want to be that kind of father," Robert recalled.
The following week, Robert donned an orange vest and joined the Parent Patrol himself. He now walks from car to car to talk with other parents about becoming involved in school safety, taking particular interest in fathers who drop off their children in ways similar to how Robert once did.
Robert also began volunteering in his son's classroom, enlisting in the Parent-Teacher Group, and joining the Salinas Union High School District School Council. Robert is now leading by example—working two jobs and making the time to volunteer at his sons' school 20 hours a week. Through the Salinas SS/HS Parent Passport Program, an incentive program to encourage parental involvement, Robert's volunteer hours earned him enough "passport stamps" to receive a new computer, which his sons use every night.
Bridging the Gap
Robert's experience illustrates how SS/HS has reached into nearly every corner of this moderately sized city of 130,000 people in northern California. With an $8.1 million SS/HS grant over 3 years, the Salinas SS/HS initiative has gone far beyond making children healthier and schools safer. Implemented at 12 schools in 1999, SS/HS programs are now available in 16 schools across four regional districts. More important, with a large population of migrant, working-class parents, the Salinas SS/HS initiative has focused on developing and advancing educational, social, and health strategies that bridge the gap between home and school.
"There is no way we could continue shutting our eyes to the effects of family and community upon our schools," said Dr. Fernando Elizondo, the Salinas Union High School District superintendent. "What the initiative does is bring families, parents, educators, social service agencies, law enforcement, and community leaders under one umbrella."
Today, dozens of "parents as teachers" (parent educators) serve as mentors, who accompany public health nurses on visits with new mothers to connect families with the resources they need. SS/HS volunteers expanded "Koffee Klatch," an existing network of mothers who meet to discuss parenting and prevention issues in an informal setting. Similarly, the Parent Patrol was formed to help students get to and from school safely.
Gang activity has been linked to violence and crime in Salinas, and despite its small size, the city has had a murder rate comparable to that of Los Angeles. Some Salinas neighborhoods have a per capita income as low as $5,519, with seasonal agricultural work contributing to a high unemployment rate. Nearly 70 percent of Salinas' school children qualify for free and reduced-cost meals, and nearly half of the area's students are classified as having limited English proficiency.
Indeed, the people of Salinas Valley were the memorable subjects in the books of Nobel Prize-winning Author John Steinbeck, whose stories depict the forgotten migrant class who banded together to forge a brighter future and to affirm the strength of the human spirit.
That banding together still resonates today. Through the work of the 14 partners of the Salinas SS/HS initiative—including its school districts, the Monterey County Department of Health, the City of Salinas Police Department, the mayor's office, and community organizations—a collaborative was formed to provide help and hope to more than 30,000 students and their families.
These programs are producing measurable outcomes as well. Between 1984 and 1994, homicides in Salinas increased by 200 percent, due in part to the existence of more than 20 gangs.
After aggressive law enforcement programs and the implementation of SS/HS programs—which included hiring school resource officers for select middle and high school with truancy and bullying problems, developing cohesive after-school programs, and staffing mental health counselors—homicides decreased 40 percent, gang-related assaults dropped 21 percent, and drive-by shootings plummeted 63 percent.
Additionally, Salinas Union High School District misdemeanor and felony arrests fell by more than half between 2001 and 2002, and expulsions for violent behavior also dropped significantly.
Much of the change that helped to reduce crime and violence in the community began in the family, according to many of the Salinas initiative's partners. "In the old days, the grandmothers and the aunts would have provided the important lessons for young parents who were trying to raise healthy children," said Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero. "That system has broken down in our society, and SS/HS provides opportunities to put those powerful safety nets in place to keep that system alive."
Along with implementing a broad range of programs, such as gang intervention, mental health, parent education, and substance abuse prevention, the Salinas SS/HS initiative reaches out to preschoolers and elementary school students to help them build social skills for interactions at school, on the playground, and for later in life.
Known as "Buddies Amiguitas," (Spanish for "buddy"), children with adjustment problems spend time with playmates for half an hour once a week. "It helps alleviate anxiety so that the children are able to get along better," said Candace Gregory, the program coordinator. "It's really about preventing violence in the long run. The skills these children are learning at such a young age are seeds for living peaceably in the future."
The Salinas initiative also funds a library-based after-school homework center, where children and families participate in literacy programs. The Salinas Parks and Recreation Department runs a basketball league.
Informing the Community
To build and sustain its initiative, the community rallied around the concept of coordinated, wide-reaching programs that help parents, teachers, and students. Using video, television, and newspapers, the Salinas SS/HS collaborative relied on a number of approaches and communication channels to promote their programs in the community.
A local Spanish radio station aired hour-long call-in programs featuring SS/HS topics and project staff. An award-winning filmmaker produced several documentaries about the initiative with support from local television stations: the Shine Like a Star
video was created as an informational tool to highlight grant activities, and American Town
presented the community through the eyes of the children of Salinas.
Television reporters created short video documentaries on the Salinas initiative, which were used to promote its programs to community groups and were aired on local network stations. Local newspapers printed the weekly column, Salinas Stories, about people who participated in the SS/HS programs.
Evaluators were brought into the fold to collect data that examined the effectiveness of the Salinas SS/HS collaborative, paying particular attention to primary prevention activities.
SS/HS partners printed newsletters encouraging broad connections and the sharing of responsibilities for the community's children with schools, partner agencies, businesses, parents, and the public. The principal brochure "We Can Help!" presented information about substance abuse intervention and treatment programs available through the partners Sun Street Centers, Second Chance, and Sunrise House.
The Salinas initiative developed the Parent Passport Program to encourage and reward parents for helping their children to learn while also improving their own parenting skills. For selected activities-such as helping in the classroom, reading books to their children, and attending parenting seminars-parents received stamps in a 4-inch by 3-inch "passport" booklet. Parents who filled their passports with stamps received awards including discount merchant coupons, computers, and admission to the San Francisco Zoo (with free food).
"The Passport Program was a great success," said SS/HS Program Director Ken Feske, referring to the more than 1,500 participants. "Surprisingly, many did not want to claim their prizes. It just shows you how the community really came out in support of the program in response to a product that was fun and meaningful at the same time."
Another strategy to affirm the success of the initiative was the "Stretch Award" in which SS/HS presented plaques (with mounted slinkies) to community partners who had "stretched" to provide services. These were given out at the community's Annual Peace Town Hall each November to area school boards, the city council, the board of supervisors, and the chamber of commerce.
Finally, with a look toward sustaining the initiative beyond the grant cycle, an SS/HS partner for gang intervention welcomed a communications coordinator, a former newspaper reporter, to write articles for the SS/HS newsletters and local newspapers; to hold press conferences; and to serve as liaison between SS/HS and the general public.
The SS/HS initiative has put into place programs to last beyond the grant cycle. "It's important to realize that if we put resources in the front end to create an effective violence prevention program, ultimately it will be more cost-effective for the entire community," Feske said.