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Signs Are Pointing to Success for School Self-Help Program

September 27, 1986|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

SAN MARCOS — At first blush, the topic sounds like a crash course on personal dynamics for over-achieving, time-pressed businessmen: "How to Be Successful in Less Than 10 Minutes a Day."

But these daily self-help tips are being dished out to seventh- and eighth-graders for the second year in a row--and whether they realize it or not, they're being prepped on how to deal with their sexuality.

The course was introduced at the start of last school year at San Marcos Junior High School, as part of a package of self-improvement courses designed to teach young teen-agers how to take more responsibility for their actions.

By the end of last school year, the programs had won the virtually unanimous approval of teachers who saw its benefits, the begrudged approval of students who saw it as more class work, and attention from other school districts around the United States that are trying to deal with the same issue:

How do schools work to reduce the number of teen-age pregnancies--by establishing on-campus health clinics that prescribe birth control pills, or by teaching youngsters at an earlier age how to act responsibly--and, ergo, to stay clear of sex?

The question was brought dramatically home here two years ago with the revelation that one in five high school girls in San Marcos became pregnant during the 1983-84 school year, based on one counselor's informal count of girls who had confided in her.

The figures, if accurate, are double the national statistics, which indicate that one in 10 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 will become pregnant every year, and that one of every four 14-year-old-girls will become pregnant at least once before they turn 20.

San Marcos school and community leaders wrestled with the wrenching news and opted on the side of teaching youngsters the process of critical decision-making, rather than focusing their attention on more extensive sex education courses.

The new programs were introduced on the junior high school campus: a six-week class to teach students how to improve their study skills--so they would do better in school and feel better about themselves; a six-week class on self-esteem and values development; a six-week sex-education course that addressed peer pressure and passion, and stressed abstinence as the best form of birth control, and 180 daily mini-lessons on "how to be successful," whether it be in the classroom, at home or on the job.

Principal Joe DeDiminicantanio said he took more than 100 phone calls and letters from school administrators elsewhere around the nation who heard of the success of San Marcos' custom-tailored, four-component program.

How successful is it?

DeDiminicantanio said there were four times as many seventh-graders as eighth-graders on the school's honor roll last spring, largely to the credit of the study skills mini-course that was offered to the seventh-graders.

And seventh- and eighth-graders alike are showing greater classroom maturity because of the overall program, the principal and staff say.

"When we were two weeks into the new school year, some teachers were saying they had students who had not yet missed a single homework assignment. That's remarkable," said English teacher Quality Quinn-Sharp.

Overall, about 90% of the homework assignments were turned in last year and so far this year--compared to a 75% homework turn-in rate before the success mini-lessons were introduced, she said.

"And if a student doesn't turn one in, at least he's up front about it and doesn't make up a phony excuse," she added. "That, in itself, is a sign of success because he's taking responsibility for his actions."

The program on how to be successful is intended to be taught during the first 10 minutes of each school day, although most teachers use it only three times a week so the students don't see the work as drudgery.

Its authors, from the Thomas Jefferson Research Center in Pasadena, say that learning how to be successful in life--starting with concepts as simple as remembering to bring a sharpened pencil to school--is better taught through a systematic presentation of concepts than being left to chance.

The students are taught that decision-making should include a four-step process called STAR: Stop, Think, Act and Review. Repeatedly throughout the 180 lessons, students are told of 12 steps to success: to be confident, responsible, present, timely, friendly, polite, prepared, a listener, a doer, a tough worker, a risk taker and a goal setter.

To that final point, students are immediately taught the benefits of developing daily to-do lists--which include such mandatory tasks as doing nightly homework and chores, and advisable activities "such as writing a letter to grandma, because that may pay off at Christmas," as Quinn-Sharp likes to tell her students.

Part of the success of the program depends on each teacher's openness in using personal examples of success and failure, Quinn-Sharp said.

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