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Archive for Saturday, March 20, 1999

S A WRAP FOR PROGRAM WITHOUT FUNDS

March 20, 1999

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Advocates of WRAP, which is in financial jeopardy, believe the program improves the emotional climate for students and staff in Lawrence public schools.

Travis Austin found a father figure in the halls of Lawrence High School.

The bright, 16-year-old sophomore has difficulty dealing with the emotional toll of life inside and outside the school building. In times of trouble, he reaches across the divide of age and experience to Charlie Kuszmaul, a pony-tailed counselor who helped bring an innovative program called WRAP, or Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities, to Lawrence public school students in 1997.

"Charlie keeps it real," Austin said. "He tells you how it is."

"When I have a problem, I come to Charlie. He'll give you his honest opinion. I think Charlie is a father figure for some people here. I wish I had somebody like Charlie when I was in junior high."

But the WRAP program, lauded by students, educators and others involved with the Lawrence public school system, is in financial peril. Grant funding is running dry and elected officials with the school district and elsewhere will be asked to decide whether this stay-in-school program for high school, junior high and elementary school students is worth an annual investment of $250,000.

Targeting at-risk youth

WRAP started as a collaborative venture by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center of Lawrence, the Lawrence school district and Lawrence Partnership for Children and Youth.

The objective remains the promotion of school success by addressing emotional issues influencing at-risk youth. It's a full-time, onsite alternative to customary discipline methods available to high school faculty.

WRAP counselors -- Bert Nash employees -- work in Lawrence public schools to cut absenteeism, repeated suspensions and antisocial behavior. They deal with mental health issues, drug and alcohol use, violence, behavior disorders, child abuse, family conflict and health needs.

"This is a big jump for the school district to allow an outside agency to work with kids," said Kuszmaul, WRAP team leader at LHS.

In the 1997-98 academic year, WRAP began at Free State High School, LHS and the Lawrence Alternative High School. Services were expanded to the district's four junior high schools one year later. Social workers with the program moved this academic year into East Heights and Woodlawn elementary schools.

Kansas Department of Education grants have financed WRAP programs in Baldwin and Eudora school districts.

In the program's 2 1/2 years, the number of Lawrence students served by WRAP has increased. In the first year, 224 high school students were referred to WRAP. The program touched 274 high school students and 102 junior high students in the second year. More than 400 high school, junior high and elementary students are expected to participate this academic year.

Elementary students are most commonly counseled in response to violent or threatening behavior towards peers or adults.

Junior high students tend to have less severe behavior problems, such as defiance, disruptive behavior or cursing. Although violence or threats also are an issue with students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades.

By high school, attendance is the main reason WRAP staff come in contact with students.

WRAP counselors often intervene to keep students in school. Kuszmaul did exactly that recently for LHS senior Chad Atwell, 18. Atwell had become belligerent with a teacher and was headed for an out-of-school suspension.

Kuszmaul discussed the situation with an assistant principal, convinced Atwell to calm down and negotiated an in-school suspension. The benefit was that Atwell wound up in a room at LHS where he was compelled to complete classroom assignments.

If he had been kicked out of school, it's highly unlikely he would have done any homework.

"It's helping me out," Atwell said. "I came in and we talked."

Measuring outcomes

For the first time, Bert Nash analysts generated a report that examined outcomes of the program among Lawrence high school students.

Tom Petrizzo, chief operating officer at Bert Nash, said 85 percent of students counseled by WRAP staff at LHS and Free State had no suspensions or discipline referrals or had a decrease in the number of these actions through the remainder of the 1998-99 academic year.

Fifteen percent of students served by WRAP showed an increase in suspensions and disciplinary actions over the year, he said.

Petrizzo said almost 70 percent of students receiving WRAP services had either no unexcused absences or showed an improvement in attendance over that school year.

Even a small reduction in these actions has a healthy impact on the quality of life in the school.

"The WRAP program has helped LHS become a better and more effective school," LHS Principal Dick Patterson said.

Teacher Deb Engstrom said the program supported teachers struggling to meet the needs of individuals who disrupt class.

"The (WRAP) worker helps teachers to 'recognize alternative possibilities' as well as students," she said.

Money woes

Petrizzo said WRAP operating grants for the Lawrence district had or will soon expire.

An $85,000 grant from the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority for high school WRAP activities ended in September 1999. The program stayed afloat with $97,000 from Douglas County Youth Services, the Lawrence school district and the city of Lawrence.

The $130,000 grant from the juvenile justice authority for non-high school programming will run out soon. To remain in operation into the summer, Petrizzo expects the program needs an infusion of $24,000.

In the long term, he said, local public officials will need to decide whether WRAP is worth saving.

"Is the community still invested in it enough? That is the key," Petrizzo said.

He said it could cost $250,000 annually to operate the program in Lawrence. He realizes the city, county and school district have their own budget challenges.

Lawrence school board member Leni Salkind said it was unclear whether WRAP could be preserved in its current form.

"Our funding is obviously not increasing a great deal in order to pick these programs up," Salkind said. The district could mine some cash if willing to "phase out some programs that maybe were not as successful," she said.

Kuszmaul, while chatting with Austin and Atwell outside his office at LHS, said there would be a ripple effect in the community if WRAP dropped off the radar screen.

Consider this:

  • Youth who quit school experience more unemployment, have lower earnings and are more likely to become young parents.
  • Juvenile violence an crime are more likely to occur during times when youth are unsupervised.
  • Early onset of delinquency and violence is predictive of more serious later violence.

"WRAP is the badly needed 'safety net' in the lives of these students," said Jan Gentry, a vice principal at LHS.

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

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