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Fast Track program|
Helping Central Pennsylvania students and families
By Barbara Hale
Playing fair, not hitting, taking turns and making friends are life lessons that most children pick up in elementary school. But what if a child doesnt learn that getting along in society requires certain behaviors? What happens in high school to a child who was the class discipline problem in elementary school? Do violence, drug abuse and crime become an inevitable part of that childs behavior? If you are that childs parents, what can you do to prevent it?|
Since January 1998, Penn State faculty members Dr. Karen Bierman, distinguished professor of psychology, Dr. Mark Greenberg, Bennett Chair of Prevention Research in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and Dr. Linda Collins, professor of human development and family studies, have been working with teams of researchers across the United States leading a program called Fast Track that involves schools and parents working together to help at-risk children.
An example of theory being turned into application, Fast Track is both a service and research program. While helping individual children overcome learning obstacles and behavior patterns that prevent them from growing into productive members of society, the researchers are, at the same time, developing new theories and new treatments.
The National Institute of Mental Health was the first federal organization to fund Fast Track nine years ago, with the single largest outside grant awarded by the institute: $9.6 million. Since then, other federal agencies have endorsed the projects approach, labeling it a model program for the nation and backing it with more funding. The Department of Education, the National Institute of Drug Abuse and others have recognized Fast Tracks comprehensive assessment of childrens problems and have cited the programs role as a bridge between school and home.
Directed by researchers from different universities at each site, Fast Track currently operates in Durham, N.C., with Duke University; Seattle, Wash., with the University of Washington; Nashville, Tenn., with Vanderbilt University; and in Central Pennsylvania in Mifflin County, the Bellefonte School District and the Tyrone School District with Penn State.
Fast Track is helping 112 families in Bellefonte, Tyrone and Mifflin County school districts with adjustment to school. The program also is promoting friendships, strengthening families, building parent-school partnerships and enhancing identity and vocational development.
Dr. Susan Welch, dean of Penn States College of the Liberal Arts, said, Fast Track is an excellent example of how research and scholarship in the social sciences can be put to work to help to build stronger families, schools and communities. Such community-University partnerships are the embodiment of our mission of teaching, research and public service.
Fast Track researchers and staff members observe and counsel children who begin to show signs of problems from kindergarten through eighth grade. Children are offered academic tutoring or extra friendship coaching sessions during the school day. Saturday or evening programs on parenting and friendship skills are also offered. If the child displays aggression, withdrawal or depression, counselors meet and coach the families on how to deal with the childs particular needs. If homework is a problem, for example, the counselors help parents set up a monitoring system for homework. If the problem is aggression, the counselors may discuss with parents some ways to help calm the child through exercises done at home. In each case, the counselors try to help the family develop a system tailored to the familys particular needs.
Since the program is voluntary and customized, it is not seen as intrusive. Parents always have the option of refusal but, as Bierman said, Most parents, when they hear that someone wants to help their child do better in school, do not refuse that help, especially when its free.
Ken Albaugh, principal of Lewistown Middle School in Mifflin County, has worked with Fast Track teams at both the elementary and middle school levels. He said teachers like Fast Track, too.
They enjoy the extra help. The Fast Track counselors give a lot of in-class assistance. And thats what the teachers appreciate most. The counselors are right there while the instruction is going on.
Albaugh added the services provided by Fast Track at the middle school are expanded over those at the elementary level.
The counselors work with kids on prevocational ideas at the middle school level and I think thats great. Something else that they try to get them to do is structure their time, which is extremely important for these kids in sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
Albaugh said Fast Track deserves to be a national model.
The Fast Track personnel that we have in our school are positive role models, he said. They are the kinds of individuals that we want working with kids and modeling behaviors for kids. They are just outstanding people. And, if Fast Track is comprised of people like this across the country, then, no wonder its getting this great reputation.
There are other indicators of success, too. Psychologists tracking the progress of the first groups of at-risk children counseled under the national Fast Track program found that by the fourth grade, 25 percent fewer children required special education, a big ticket item in school district budgets.
Bierman said, This program is not a shot in the arm. Its not some eight-week workshop that attempts to cure social ills in a few sessions. We follow the students and the parents. We find out who needs more help when, and we give it to them.
Fast Track is research and service that worksand it is making a difference.