Bridges to High School

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Learn about Bridges to High School, a family-focused intervention program that engages students in middle school to stay on an academic track. New findings show the program is leading to decreased drop-out rates and lower rates of substance abuse. Nancy Gonzales, ASU Foundation Professor in the REACH Institute and Psychology department, talks about the findings and program.

José Cárdenas: Good evening, I'm José Cárdenas. Find out how one intervention program in the valley is helping students stay on an academic track. And learn how ASU is helping high school students prepare for college. Plus a new app-based pilot program could help in autism diagnosis. All this coming up, straight ahead on "Horizonte."

Video: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the friends of eight. Members of your Arizona PBS station.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. Bridges to high school is a family focused intervention program helping students focus on their academics. New findings show the program is leading to decreased drop-out rates and lower rates of substance abuse. Joining me to talk were this is Nancy Gonzales, ASU foundation professor in the reach institute and psychology department. Doctor, welcome to "Horizonte."

Nancy Gonzales: Thank you very much.

José Cárdenas: So this is a study, the whole thing is a study that your group and other professors have been working on for a number of years. Give us the parameters of the study and then we'll talk about the results.

Nancy Gonzales: The study itself was randomized trial of an intervention that a group of us at ASU developed. It's a family focused program that brings parents and their teens together in the school setting to actively engage in learning new skills to help them promote their children's academic engagement and success.

José Cárdenas: And what ages are we talking about?

Nancy Gonzales: We have targeted seventh graders, up until this point. We think it's a critical age where some kids can start to make choices, and to get into -- Get into issues that start detracting from school. So it's a critical time to catch them before that happens.

José Cárdenas: And I understand you had, what, 500 participants?

Nancy Gonzales: We had 516 families in the program. It was a randomized trial, so we had some families that received the full-blown program and another group of families that got kind of more traditional informational kinds of program related to academic success. And then we intensively interviewed those families in their homes, we gathered data from the schools, we gathered data from the teachers, and we followed them from seventh grade until the age of 20, in fact. And we were able to then track their well-being on multiple dimensions across time.

José Cárdenas: So let's talk about what the full-blown program consisted of.

Nancy Gonzales: The full-blown program was a nine-session after-school program. So families would come to the schools and for -- We had them for two hours each time. They would start by the parents would go into their own groups with other parents, and the teens would go into their own groups. And with parents we focused on how they could create the conditions that would be optimal to promote their children's exploration of their interests, their ability to focus on work, and what they need to do to limit their kids in ways to prevent them from getting into trouble in middle school and as they go into high school. So it's really focused on strengthening what parents can do and what the family can do, what role they can play. Then with the teens we focused with them on exploring their -- The future possibilities, their aspirations and dreams, but then going beyond that to give them concrete skills they can use based on scientific evident about what works for achieving goals for coping with problems, really using the best of what social science and clinical science told us about how kids can handle adversities in life and really thrive.

José Cárdenas: And did the curriculum change from one year to the next? So as seventh graders they received one set of input and as eighth graders it's different?

Nancy Gonzales: The program only intervenes in seventh grade. So it's a one-time intervention, we work with them for nine sessions in the seventh grade, and preventive, we really kind of pack the program with all of our best advice and when parents come and kids come to the program, we teach them things, they go off and practice, they come back, they get feedback, they refine it so we're actively engaged in trying to change the nature of how families interact. And then we're done. And then we just followed them. And so at this stage of the program there weren't follow-ups. We wanted to see what could we do with this one shot of intervention.

José Cárdenas: Did you follow up in terms of monitoring?

Nancy Gonzales: We followed up in terms of monitoring.

José Cárdenas: What did that consist of?

Nancy Gonzales: We would go into their homes and we would do extensive interviews about their relationships, their emotional adjustment, behavioral issues that they might be having, the nature of their family relationships, the nature of peer relationships, we were funded by the national institute of mental health, so we had a big focus on their mental health, and trying to figure out whether they had any behavioral problems, or emotional problems, like depression, anxiety, and then tracking their school performance and achievement over time.

José Cárdenas: What did you find? What were the conclusions of the study?

Nancy Gonzales: We found -- We had this wealth of data, so we were able to ask many questions over time. What we found initially was that the kids who had been in the program versus those who didn't receive the full program were reported being much more interested in school and valuing school. So they felt school was important in their life. So they were much more motivated in school. And we showed an improvement in their grades. We also showed less likelihood of them getting into experimenting with drugs and alcohol at an early age. We showed improved family relationships, and then five years later, we showed that this was related to decreased rates of depression, decreased use of substances and substance abuse disorders, and lower rates of school dropouts.

José Cárdenas: And what did you find out with respect to the parents and their interest in promoting their children's education?

Nancy Gonzales: Well, it was actually a very fulfilling project to have been involved in, because we found that families were very enthusiastic and eager to do all they could for their children. And so we would have -- The trick is to get them in the door. Once in the door, and they could see there was something of value for them, they were very motivated to make changes. And to sort of check out what is it that I need to be doing to really put my child on the best possible track.

José Cárdenas: So in some ways, this refutes the stereo type that Hispanic families, particularly first generation, aren't as interested in education for their children.

Nancy Gonzales: Absolutely. Yeah. That's definitely what we found. And in fact, we had our -- Probably our greatest attendance was those first generation families who would come and, you know, we had a big group families who came to every one of the nine sessions.

José Cárdenas: And so where do you go from here? You've got the results. Will there be further studies? Are you going to do something to put these programs into practice?

Nancy Gonzales: That's the big challenge now. There are some significant barriers to being able to put -- Take a program like this and implement it on a broad scale. One is that it's time intensive and it's costly. And schools have many other demands on their times, and so do families. So what we're doing now is taking all that we've learned from the program about what about the program worked, and we're trying to streamline it and put packages -- Package it in a way that it will be easily delivered in a more cost effective way. We're turning to technology, we're turning to new curriculum design that we think will be easier for schools to implement, and we're taking the nine sessions and we're boiling it down into four of -- Four sessions total.

José Cárdenas: And I assume there would be further study to see if these methods work?

Nancy Gonzales: Yeah, we recently received a new grant from the national institute of drug abuse to try out this -- To develop and try out this new program. So we're right now partnering with schools. We really want schools to help us shape what it needs to look like so that it can be sustained in the long term. And we have a study to then evaluate the effects of that program.

José Cárdenas: Dr. Nancy Gonzales, thanks for joining us to talk about this fascinating research.

Nancy Gonzales: Thank you.

Nancy Gonzales:Foundation Professor, REACH Institute and Psychology Department at Arizona State University;

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