Safe Passages: Making It Through Adolescence In A Risky Society

GUEST: Joy Dryfoos
VTR: 6/30/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though I’d never met her until she walked into our studio today, I’ve heard so much about my guest from people who care about our future, our children, that I felt I’ve known this independent researcher and writer for a long, long time. And now I’ve read Joy Dryfoos and want to share with you her new Oxford University Press call to arms, Safe Passage: Making It Through Adolescence In A Risky Society. Filled as it is with such real insights into what parents, schools, and communities can do, have done, to guide our kids through the mine-fields of drugs, teenage pregnancy, violent behavior, and school failure. Perhaps most of all, as I’ve read her new book, I realize how much Joy Dryfoos and I share the same goal, namely: their safe passage in a risky society of her young granddaughters, and my young grandsons, who we want so much, as she writes, “to grow up in a fine, democratic society that will be responsive to all young people and their needs.” Besides, after years of looking at relevant research, Joy Dryfoos has become ever more convinced that we really know what to do about the risks our youngsters face. So that my first question to her must be: Why don’t we Americans do what we know we must?

DRYFOOS: Well, maybe it’s because they haven’t all read this book. [Laughter] But…

HEFFNER: Now they will.

DRYFOOS: Now they will. But I think there’s this myth that we don’t know what to do. But we do know what to do. But we don’t seem to be able to sort of get our national act together. We don’t have the youth policy like other countries, other Western countries particularly. We have a million scattered programs all over the place, but we don’t seem to be able to put them together. It’s the sort of individualistic mentality, maybe, of Americans, that everybody’s got to do his own thing. And now we’re beginning to realize that these many pieces have to be put together in order to have some sort of holistic approach to young people.

HEFFNER: Do you think that part of that is because for so long our tradition has been to keep education on a state or local basis, and not let Uncle Sam dominate the educational scene?

DRYFOOS: I’m not sure about that. Though that’s an interesting point of view. And I don’t know that I want Uncle Sam to do a whole lot more about education, but what I want him to do is a whole lot — him or her — to do a whole lot more about making it possible to fund programs sort of collectively that may be located in schools. But I think there are resources. And I don’t think it’s, I’m not one of these people who feels that the problem is that we have 15,000 school boards and they’re all doing something different, because I’ve seen too many school systems that have been able to work their way out of the morass and do some pretty good things.

HEFFNER: Then how do you describe “The Problem?”

DRYFOOS: “The Problem” is, well, there are many. I think I started by saying there’s kind of a deep insensitivity to young people’s needs, real needs.

HEFFNER: Excuse me. Let me interrupt and ask: How so? We’re supposed to be a child-oriented nation.

DRYFOOS: Well, we’re child-oriented in a sort of, again a kind of individualistic way that parents care about their individual children, but I’m not sure that parents care about other people’s children, or that people who don’t have children care about other people’s children. So it’s sort of, “I’m going to get it for mine,” and if the kids don’t have effective parents who can get it for them, then they’re at a great loss. So that we have this tremendous inequality between who’s got it and who hasn’t. I live in a suburb called Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where they spend $13,000 per child per year on the school. And we live next to Yonkers, New York, right next to it, where they probably spend about half that per child per year. But the people in Hastings certainly would not want to cut back on how much they spend on their children and contribute a little bit more to the people in Yonkers.

HEFFNER: Is that what is going to have to be done before we can solve the problems?

DRYFOOS: I mean, when you’re asking about did we need more sort of federal funding of education, we certainly need more equalization of spending on education. But that seems to happen much more at the state level. The states do have the power to redistribute state funds for education, and that’s, you know, going on in Texas and New Jersey, and some other states are very interested in doing this. I was on a commission (I’ve been on so many of them over the years that recommended all the things that I’m still recommending), but in New York State, it’s got to be at least ten years ago, maybe 15, which said, “We have two separate school systems: one for the rich, and one for the poor. And we need to equalize.” That hasn’t happened in New York State, so we still have, you know, huge discrepancies between what happens in the city and what happens in the ‘burbs.

HEFFNER: Well, in Safe Passage it’s quite clear that you have what you can call a “behavioral outcome” in terms of your test .. kind of rudimentary Dryfoos test as to whether we’re doing the right things. And the test along the lines of delaying drugs, delaying sex, preventing acting out, which is violence amongst the kids, and improving school performance. How do you see this being achieved? What are the …

DRYFOOS: Well, I see those, first of all, I see what we call the “new morbidities” as being very interrelated: sex, drugs, and violence. And we think of them, I mean, very separately, first of all. We’ve got a campaign about teen pregnancy, we’ve got a big smoking-prevention thing, but those are never connected. And then we’ve got this huge school-reform machine, whatever that is, over here. But these things are not interrelated. I see that, first, if you go back, as I do in the book, and look at who does what in terms of youth behaviors, it’s very clear that the kids who are vulnerable to the consequences of early sex are the same kids who are often using drugs, who are doing poorly in school. In fact, one of my favorite statistics is that if you’ve been left back twice, you’re never going to make it. I mean, it’s very, very difficult to ever get out of that morass. And those are the kids who are standing on the street corner dealing drugs, or… They may be doing very well, actually, dealing drugs, but they’re certainly not getting an education. They have sex very early, they’re very vulnerable to sexually transmitted disease. There’s a, I mean, I hate to use the word “syndrome,” and actually I don’t think I use the word “syndrome” in this book, but it is a syndrome. And I estimate that about somewhere between 25 and 35 percent of all teenagers, say, ten- to 17-year-olds, are really not going to be able to overcome these problems without a great deal of intensive intervention, that somebody’s got to really wrap themselves around them and almost save them. It sounds very, sort of, programmatic, maybe. I don’t know how it sounds to you.

HEFFNER: Why do you use that word, “programmatic?”

DRYFOOS: Well, people often think that “program” is a bad word.

HEFFNER: Yeah. Why?

DRYFOOS: Because I think, first of all, it’s money, and secondly, that parents ought to be bringing up children. I’d say, maybe I should turn that around. That the, sort of the general belief is that parents are responsible for their children, and they should bring them up, and they should teach them values, and they should handle all this stuff about sex, drugs and violence. And certainly we hear a lot about values. But it doesn’t work, and they’re not doing it, and clearly the kids aren’t paying attention, a lot of kids aren’t paying attention to their parents.

HEFFNER: So you say it takes a community, or it takes a village.

DRYFOOS: No, I would say it takes a program. I mean, I think “program” is a good word … in my vocabulary. And, in fact, I think in there I went on quite at length saying, you know, the Defense Department is nothing but a giant, it’s a bunch of programs, and nobody seems to worry about. But they do believe that we should have programs for defense. Road building is the biggest program around. Just got, what, 217 billion new dollars for transportation. And that’s certainly a whole bunch of programs, and people don’t seem to object to that. But then when you say we’re going to have a program that goes into the schools and provides health services, that’s suddenly some sort of terribly radical idea.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that part of the concern we had some 20 years ago, perhaps, that we were imposing too many obligations upon the schools?

DRYFOOS: Well, there was this whole thing about the mall high school, and I think various reports. This is a little different concept, but the main thing that’s different about it is that I don’t believe the schools should do anything but teach. They should be places of cognitive enrichment and quality education. And school people know how to do that, some of them do, but they can’t do it unless somebody else is around there in the school setting to provide a lot of other supports that these kids need: health services, particularly mental health services, dentistry, family services, parent involvement, and there’s a huge list of them. I look forward to, you know, talking about some of the models I’ve seen that are doing this. But the schools should not be paying for any of that ancillary stuff. That should be paid for by the agencies that have been set up to do that. So when the health services come into a school and a clinic’s opened in a school, the clinic comes from a community health center or a hospital or a public health agency and comes in with public-health funds, or whatever kind of funds that we can find to support that program. But it certainly shouldn’t come out of education funds.

HEFFNER: And that’s the model that you believe has worked and where you say we know what it takes?

DRYFOOS: That’s one of the models. In the book, one of the chapters describes five very different kinds of programs, all of which work, all have been researched, and they’re all pretty complex.

HEFFNER: What are some of them?

DRYFOOS: Okay. One of them is a settlement house actually in Caimito, Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, where there’s a police coban. A “coban” is a Japanese term for a community police station, but it’s an instance where a very complete settlement house is sort of rounded out by having police as part of the staff. So a policeperson, in this case, well, at least when I visited there was a female policeperson, and her husband and her child, were living on this property along with several other policepeople who came every day, and they were partnered with the outreach workers from the settlement house who go out into the community and do everything from, you know, getting dead cows out of the street to filling potholes, making sure potholes are filled, to tracking down truant kids, to going in the school and talking to the kids about whatever drug problems they might have. They’re a team. And that has been very effective in reducing the crime rates in this very disadvantaged community. The settlement house offers all kinds of, everything from cooking to English lessons to bee raising to horticultural sort of farming, training, so it’s a very comprehensive program. That’s one example.

Another one, which pleases me very much to talk about because it’s in Marshalltown, Iowa, which is the very center of America, and I’m very much an East Coast person, so it was very good for me to go out to Iowa. In fact, I discovered this program by accident. I went to speak at some conference that the Education Department in Iowa was having, and they said, “Do you want to see a community school?” So I said, “Sure.” And we went out to the sticks somewhere, and sort of past rolling farm hills, very beautiful area, and came to Marshalltown, where I discovered a whole school system that’s committed to this idea of community schooling. And the story in the book is about Marshalltown High School, which has something called “The Caring Connection.” It has 26 different agencies come into that school and provide services. So there’s a beautiful unit that looks like a health center, I guess, or another kind of service center, but it’s right in the school. Now, not only do they provide all these services to the kids in that community, but they also work in some of the classrooms, so when kids are having problems learning, the teachers have a place to send the kids where they might spend a week or a month or as long as it takes and get individual attention from trained people who are not necessarily part of the school system, but they come in as sort of learning coordinators, and they do a lot of computer work and coordinate with the teachers and make sure that the kids are learning.

HEFFNER: And the parents in the community do not feel that this is something un-American?

DRYFOOS: Oh, quite the contrary. I have never visited a program that had a problem with parental consent or parental participation. Parents are very desperate about the safety of their kids. And all these programs are kind of focused on what are called “high-risk kids.” The kids who are doing well obviously don’t need all this care, but for kids who aren’t doing well, or who are vulnerable to, you know, having early sex or using drugs or all these other things, then they really need a lot of attention. The thing that these programs have in common is that they give the kids a tremendous amount of attention. But probably most well-researched and, I guess, famous program is something called “Quantum Opportunities, Inc.” And that was a program, the one I described as a replication of the original research program, and the replication is being done on Philadelphia. The original program was done in five communities around the country, supported by the Ford Foundation. And this replication is supported by the Department of Labor, and some more by the Ford Foundation.

At any rate, this is the most intensive program imaginable. It’s every afternoon after school, beginning with very high-risk ninth graders. The minute they go into ninth grade they’re eligible for the program. They stay in it for four years. They go every day after school. They are paid a stipend of a dollar and a quarter, which they put into a bank account for college. They, it’s very computerized. It’s sort of computerized learning, so that they are tested very early on. And like if they’re fourth-grade reading level and second-grade math level, which is not atypical for this bunch of kids, they are instructed by sort of wrap-around youth workers who are very evident in this program, who move them through this cognitive enrichment and so they catch up with their class and often get ahead of it.

HEFFNER: How many children are there in the United States who, in your estimation, would benefit from this kind of community setting?

DRYFOOS: Well, about a quarter of them, about seven million ten- to 17-year-olds. A lot.

HEFFNER: That many are at risk?

DRYFOOS: Oh, yeah. A lot of kids. I mean, in every school there are a lot of kids who are at risk. And it could range from ten percent probably in Hastings, where I live, to everybody in some of the schools in New York.

HEFFNER: In New York City.

DRYFOOS: But New York City isn’t very different from all the other cities. I mean, I can’t remember how many large cities there are in the country that have very similar statistics of problems and failure and difficulties financing programs and dilapidated schools. I mean, if you look at where the schools that are collapsing are, and you know that we’ve had a very hard time getting anybody interested in rebuilding the schools of America, but they’re in the cities and they’re in rural areas.

HEFFNER: Can this be done, has it been done successfully or most successfully as an after-school project?

DRYFOOS: No. No. I think my own bias is toward really creating new kinds of institutions from, we learn from something like Quantum Opportunities. But I’d like to see a lot of the principals in that program in a program that begins at, you know, seven in the morning, and goes to ten at night, so that there’s always something going on that a young person can do. Quantum Opportunities, in a sense, is saying… Well, the kids in Quantum Opportunities, when I visited, said, “We really wish we didn’t have to go to regular school, because we don’t learn anything there. And this is where we learn.” So it seems a shame that they have to put in, you know, from eight till two in some lousy school when they could, we could be reorganizing the school as well. And that’s coming. I mean, because some of these replications of Quantum Opportunities are now moving into school buildings. And they were originally run by community-based organizations.

HEFFNER: But in terms of private enterprise, private enterprise run?

DRYFOOS: No, they’re not, none of them are private enterprise. I mean, they’re funded by foundations or by government agencies.

HEFFNER: Yes, but operated by?

DRYFOOS: They’re operated by community nonprofit organizations largely.

HEFFNER: Do you recommend that?

DRYFOOS: Yes, very much so. I mean, my ideal, and my favorite chapter in the book is called “The Vision of the Safe Passage School,” and that’s a middle school which is jointly run by a community organization or a United Way, some group in the community, and the school system. And they get together and they jointly operate a new kind of institution, which I call “community school,” although that’s an old term. But I can’t think of something new to call it. But that school is open all the time, and it’s very, it becomes a kind of community and neighborhood hub.

Now, there is some schools in New York run by the Children’s Aid Society which are very similar to this, and there are some schools in Philadelphia run by the University of Pennsylvania. That’s another school that’s featured in the book, the Turner School. But the University of Pennsylvania is running about 12 or 13 community schools. I say “running”; they’re collaborating with the school system to run them. So there are other programs around the country that are fairly similar to what I’ve described as the idea..

HEFFNER: And the results?

DRYFOOS: Well, the results are just coming in. Actually, there are 16 different evaluations that are just being initiated. Seventeen, because the latest one is of a very new after-school federal program that has a lot of these same ideas called “The 21st Century Learning Centers,” community learning centers. And I’ll tell you about that.

HEFFNER: How does it look? How do the results look?

DRYFOOS: Well, the results are preliminary, but for the Children’s Aid Society schools, which are right here in New York, they look very good. They’re very, very promising. There’s improvement in achievement, and that’s what…

HEFFNER: Academic achievement.

DRYFOOS: Academic achievement. And that’s what everybody’s looking for.

HEFFNER: And the violence and the drugs and the sex?

DRYFOOS: They haven’t looked at sex, as far as I know. They have looked at the violence in the neighborhood, and any delinquency in the school. They’ve had virtually no delinquency in the school. No acting out, no graffiti, and they have worked with the police department in the area and they report lowering of crime. But, of course, that’s sort of going on in different neighborhoods in New York, too. Some of the problems of researching these complex programs are enormous because there are a lot of things happening at the same time, and we know in New York that supposedly, according to our mayor, the crime rates are going down. So this may have happened without the school. I don’t know. But it’s certainly happening around the school.

HEFFNER: How fast do you see this developing?

DRYFOOS: It’s happening very rapidly. I’ve, you know, sort of gone through a whole transition in my own thinking over many years, sort of dating from each book that I’ve written, I’ve moved from sort of a, I started out actually as a researcher in the area of teen-pregnancy prevention many years ago at the Allen Gutenmacher Institute. And so I’ve gone from that to looking at substance abuse, and then eventually to looking at schools, and now I really see that all of them have to be looked at together. I lost the point of your question.

HEFFNER: I was wondering what we can look forward to in terms of expanding and replication. You used the word “replication.”

DRYFOOS: Oh, okay. No, I was going to give an example that, in about 1983 I got really interested in school-based clinics. That’s how I started entering schools, because it had been proposed to me by actually somebody at the Rockefeller Foundation that I should go and look at school-based clinics because that might be a way to prevent teen pregnancy. And that was in 1983. And there were ten school-based clinics. I just came back from Los Angeles the other day, where there was a meeting of the National Assembly of School-Based Healthcare. There are now over a thousand school-based clinics. So it can move very rapidly if the forces are right and people, if it makes sense. And I think the same thing is very much happening with community schools. And I would say school-based partnerships of all kinds.

I just mentioned that government has a new after-school support program which has just given grants to 98 agencies, 98 school systems actually, to open 315 after-school programs. George Soros, who I’m sure you have met…

HEFFNER: He sat in that chair where you’re sitting.

DRYFOOS: Right. Well, he has just started a program, I think it’s called “After School, Inc.” That might not be exactly right. And he’s given, I think it’s about $20 million to start, and I may have that number wrong, but it’s a lot of money. They’re going to start in New York City with some after-school programs, very much based on a model called “The Beacons,” which already exists in New York City. And those are after-school programs run, again, by community-based organizations like Arista or the Urban League, or, you know, organizations that work in the community with young people. Soros’s idea is that he will very rapidly move to having every school in New York City open after school, and after that every school in the country open after school. Now, I’ve finally found somebody who is an even greater optimist about all of this stuff than I am.

HEFFNER: But that should be the objective, shouldn’t it?

DRYFOOS: Well, I’m not sure everybody needs to have all the things that I envision in the full-service community school that’s open all the time with a health clinic and mental health services and family resource centers. But I do think that just about every community needs to have the school open after school. So I’m not sure how far we can go in the sort of the full model of, it’s really a school-reform model.

HEFFNER: Why?

DRYFOOS: Because it’s very hard to do. It’s very complex, and everybody doesn’t want… It’s got to be based on what the people in the community want. And everybody doesn’t want the same thing; they want very different things.

HEFFNER: We have one minute left. What is the downside, if anything, in trying to get this done, the point of opposition?

DRYFOOS: Well, just… I don’t think there’s a lot of opposition in the sort of, you know, the Christian Coalition is going to come in and picket kind of thing. It’s just very difficult to do. It’s very hard for people to change what they do.

HEFFNER: You mean even with the kind of proof positive that you offer in Safe Passage?

DRYFOOS: Well, I wish that I were that influential, but I think I can inspire people to try to change. But when it comes to the sort of nitty-gritty of what goes on in a school and what goes on in health agencies and social service agencies, they’re all people and they all have their own ways of doing things. And they’re very different cultures, sort of the helping professions in the school are very different cultures, and they clash.

HEFFNER: By and large are they willing to come together, as you suggest?

DRYFOOS: Well, it’s amazing to me when funds are made available how a lot of people overcome their prejudices. I’ve seen it happen.

HEFFNER: The dollar over everything?

DRYFOOS: Well, I mean, I actually started out in the family-planning field, even before teen pregnancy. And so I vividly remember going to St. Louis, for example, where they said the county health department would never provide family planning. And the next year, Title X passed, the Family Planning Act, and now I think if you went to St. Louis you’d find that every clinic had family planning.

HEFFNER: You’re a wonderful optimist, and reading Safe Passage makes even me optimistic. Joy Dryfoos, thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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