Rural Trust Webinar Series Features Rural Innovations: Search Institute: Building Assets-Reducing Risks

Last Updated: March 29, 2011

This article appeared in the March 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

The Rural Trust is hosting a series of webinars featuring programs doing innovative work in rural schools.

“These programs present innovations that have promise or have been proven in rural places,” explains Doris Terry Williams, Executive Director of the Rural Trust. The webinars are intended to share information with schools and communities around the country.

The March webinar featured the work of the non-profit Search Institute. Staff and consultants Nancy Tellet-Royce, Angela Jerebek, and Bob Laney discussed the Building Assets—Reducing Risks (BARR) program, which focuses on building developmental assets among 9th graders.

Rural track record

The Search Institute has worked for 50 years to help families, schools, and communities make the world a better place for kids. It has “a track record of working in rural places, and their approach is place-based, which means it is highly adaptable,” says Williams.

The scope of Search Institute’s work includes publications, on-site training with communities, and surveys of more than three million young people.

Asset-based youth development

“Our surveys are another resource,” explains Nancy Tellet-Royce, Search Institute Project Director. “They give communities a strengths-based snapshot of their youth. That’s different from many surveys, which are great at cataloging all the negative activities that young people are engaged with. Our feeling is we need to balance that with a portrait of some of their strengths and give communities a way to build from that strengths perspective.”

To that end, the Search Institute has identified a framework of developmental assets, experiences, behaviors, and qualities that research has shown lead young people to success. The framework includes both external assets like family and adult support and internal assets like commitment to learning and positive values.

“These assets improve outcomes regardless of students’ background or location,” explains Tellet-Royce.

BARR Program

The i3 grant will enable the Search Institute to extend its BARR program into several rural schools. Like other Search Institute programs, Building Assets—Reducing Risks (BARR) works with communities and young people to build developmental assets.

BARR specifically focuses on ninth grade, a tipping point for school success when rates of substance abuse, failing grades, truancy, and discipline referrals increase.

The program works to strengthen relationships among students and teachers, enforce school boundaries, increase student engagement, and involve parents and school staff in implementing program strategies.

Bob Laney was principal and Angela Jerebek was a counselor at St. Louis Park High School in Minnesota when BARR was implemented there twelve years ago.

Jerebek explains that when St. Louis Park started the program the school “needed to put a system in place rather than doing individual interventions to ensure that students were having a successful transition.” She explains that the school wanted a program that would help all students grow and would also help reduce drug use, failure rates, and discipline problems, and improve school attendance.

“We took the asset framework and developed the program using a theoretical model,” explains Jerebek. The program created “shifts” in the school, including a new focus on the whole class, strengths-based approaches, and changes in the school’s master schedule.

BARR structures ninth grade students into groups of 75–80 students, Laney explains. Each group is paired with a “block” of three core-subject teachers. The teacher block meets one period every day and is responsible for ”developing relationships and monitoring progress of all students in their block.

Teachers review the progress of each student, determine if interventions are needed, and plan together. All the ninth-grade teacher blocks meet once each month to share experiences, look for trends, and brainstorm solutions.

Jerebek explains that the BARR program trains teachers in the assets approach, and teachers provide instruction directly to students on how to build critical personal strengths like communication and goal-setting.

Results of the program have been significant. The school has seen decreases in academic failures, discipline incidents, and cigarette usage, and it has seen increases in student attendance, enrollment in challenging classes, and in the percentage of students who report that teachers are interested in them as a person.

Teachers also benefit

While student outcomes have been the predominant focus, BARR has also had important positive effects on teachers, perhaps most importantly through the opportunities it provides for teachers to collaborate with each other.

“The program provides positive peer pressure from teachers,” says Jerebek. “The level of engagement with students becomes very high because teachers meet everyday, the necessity of having relationships become very transparent and shifts the entire culture.”

Laney affirms the program’s capacity to enable teachers to support each other. “It allows for a lot of collaborative learning.” Laney describes occasions when teams were able to work together to develop approaches to help a struggling member.

In an era when many teachers feel they are assaulted on multiple fronts, BARR does something else very important. “It makes staff feel more professional,” Laney concludes. Teachers “are constantly modifying the program, so it’s very fluid and vibrant. Teachers see themselves as integral parts of this program. It enhances their desire to stay as a staff member.”

The Search Institute is one of the organizations that won an i3 grant with a match provided, in part, by the Rural School and Community Trust in partnership with the Gates Foundation. The Rural Trust amassed a pool of more than $14 million to assist rural-focused i3 applicants in meeting the funding match required for i3 eligibility. Contributors to the pool included W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Gates Foundation Walton Family Foundation, and the Walmart Foundation.

You can listen to the March Search Institute webinar audio and follow along with the PowerPoint, both of which are posted on the Rural Trust website. Visit the Search Institute website for additional information about their programs.

You can also listen and follow along with the November webinar, “Schools to Watch: School Transformation Network,” presented by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, also a part of the Rural Schools Innovations webinar series.

Read more from the March 2011 Rural Policy Matters.