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AUSTIN EDITION - Program for at-risk children, families gets good marks

By Amy Olson

aolson@postbulletin.com

A program to help at-risk students get back on track seems to work, according to preliminary data.

In February, Mower County Board members agreed to provide $180,000 in funding for the Families and Schools Together program. School officials report that students in the program get better grades, are more cooperative in class and get along better at home, Parenting Resources Center Director Maryanne Law told commissioners on Tuesday.

The 10-week program attempted to bring parents and middle school students together for constructive activities with schools, nonprofit organizations, mental health professionals and substance abuse counselors. A peer group also meets during the school week. The current sessions, being held in Southland, LeRoy and Austin, involves 180 people in 39 families. Participants include students, siblings and parents.

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Survey results from the pilot program started in the Southland School District in 2001 show a 5 percent increase in feelings of family cohesion and a 6 percent reduction in parental stress, said Kathy Stutzman of the Parenting Resource Center. Respondents also reported better interpersonal skills, which seems to be an indicator that teenagers will be less likely to be involved in juvenile delinquency, violence or drug and alcohol abuse.

A six-month follow-up study shows 33 percent of families report an increase in church attendance. Twenty-nine percent of families reported accessing community services to improve parenting skills and help children and parents communicate better.

After the county allocated the $180,000, the Parenting Resource Center received additional grant money from the state Department of Human Services' chemical dependency prevention division and Apex Austin to run the program through 2004.

While the program has not averted out-of-home placements in all cases, Stutzman said she hopes the program can more quickly and less expensively get children into temporary or long-term foster care.

Human Services Director Bruce Henricks said the program could be a great investment in preventing substance abuse and reducing violence. He said he will be interested to watch what happens over time.

Law said officials will have a more comprehensive idea of how successful the program is in five years, when she says they expect to see an increase in graduation rates and a decrease in juvenile crime rates.

"We're off to a good start," said county board Chairman Len Miller.

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