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Program turning around lives at Ogden middle school

OGDEN -- Mound Fort Middle School students who once nervously looked over their shoulders are now sitting down with gang-member peers to tie quilts for the homeless.

Over the past four years, the inner-city school has helped students gain a sense of pride, safety and well-being, thanks to a prevention program through Utah State University, intervention efforts and character education, said principal Tim Smith.Composite scores on the state-mandated Stanford Achievement Test have skyrocketed from the 24th to the 41st percentile from 1995 to 1998; reading scores went from the 33rd percentile to the 59th percentile in the same time.

The school's success has turned heads nationally. Mound Fort was among 10 U.S. schools to receive the Business Week Award for Instructional Innovation and a $2,000 grant to share its program with others.

Smith says any school can launch the program and achieve similar results, with a few grants and a lot of dedication and elbow grease.

"It was not something difficult to do. It was something (students) wanted," Smith said. "They wanted to get out of the violent nature ... psychologically, they're now being told they can achieve success without being violent."

When Smith came to Mound Fort five years ago, the school had low test scores and high juvenile delinquency rates. Some teachers feared for their and their students' safety. The school notched-up discipline and conducted weekly tutorials in the basics, but with results the staff knew would be temporary. Some used inner-city issues to excuse poor performance.

But administrators who wanted to get at the problem's root tested sixth-graders, only to find 80 percent read more than two years below grade level. Results were similar for seventh- and eighth-graders. So the school secured a state grant to build reading proficiency and hired specialists. Scores went up with time.

Aside from academia, the school had its social problems. USU approached the school about its Prevention Plus program, which focuses on skill building and teachers developing strong personal relationships with kids.

Richard West, a special education professor at USU and director of the university's School of the Future, presented the Prevention Plus program to the Legislature's Education Interim Committee earlier this month as an effective violence prevention model.

"The essence is, every child in school must feel welcome and successful in school. And we need to focus on needs of at-risk students," West said.

Students struggling with absenteeism, school failure, discipline or family problems are selected to attend the Prevention Plus class daily.

After working on academic skills, achieved with ample praise from teachers, kids move on to learning other essential skills for success, including following directions and understanding consequences to behaviors. Students role-play social skills, such as proper greetings for adults and teachers, and how to give compliments.

Students practice skills at home and regularly brought success stories back to class -- one girl's mother nearly fell over backward when her daughter happily said she would do the dishes when asked.

"They start feeling more successful when they use these things. For the first time, they say, `I feel like my teachers like me. This is great!' " said Mary Peterson, Prevention Plus teacher who is now a school counselor.

They also learn to resist peer pressure and participate in-service learning projects, such as visiting retirement homes, to build self-esteem.

"This is giving them a pocket of tools that they can pull out anytime they might need it," Peterson said.

The Partners Program is a more intense intervention program like Prevention Plus, but for three class periods a day and with a heavier focus on academics, Peterson said.

The whole school participates in PeaceBuilders, in which students are asked to give up put-downs, right wrongs, offer praise and seek advice from the wise in troubled times. Teachers and students live those rules every day: They offer kind words for a public praise board, go on peace walks and participate in community service.

Community of Caring character education program, which teaches values of family, trust, respect, responsibility and caring, permeates all angles of the curriculum.

"It's affected our whole school climate," Peterson said. "Is that to say we don't have problems? No. But we all have more positive ways of handling those challenges."

Teachers say instruction is a lot easier now than it was five years ago, said Smith, who plans to implement such programs at his new school, Ben Lomond High. Students feel better about themselves. And academics are important to students.

"At Mound Fort, it seems to be working," he said, "and it's my kids who are making it happen."

Each month the Deseret News education page will feature an innovative idea that's making a difference in Utah schools.