Administrators of the Tuolumne County Public Schools sponsored TOP for the first time in 1992-93, combining it with an existing program for at-risk youth called the YES-Youth Community Health Alliance. The YES project began in 1986 in response to community concerns about drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and school dropouts. Agencies that funded YES suggested that Tuolumne schools consider implementing TOP; school administrators were attracted to TOP's community service component and hoped it would connect students with the community.
Interdisciplinary community service projects are integrated into and enhance the core academic curriculum. For example, a science class participating in a stream clean-up project also involves history, civics, and language arts learning as students study the history of the community and uses of the stream and activate community leaders to support changes that could eliminate pollution and restore stream life. Students reflect upon their learning and develop language arts skills through discussions and by writing articles, essays, and personal journals. Service learning also encourages higher-order thinking skills and allows students to apply learning to real-life situations. Other service learning projects in Tuolumne involve composting, recycling, and cemetery clean-up.
In addition, the Tuolumne TOP program has applied for funding in collaboration with the school district, the Community Health Alliance, and a local community college's service learning program, which will provide mentoring relationships between college students enrolled in service learning and the high school TOP students. The new project also will pay teachers to develop more curricula integrated with service learning for most elementary schools and two high schools in the county.
The Life Options class, led by a teacher or counselor who serves as a facilitator, stresses positive decision-making skills. The class follows a model curriculum distributed by the AJLI; it includes 11 units on such topics as communication skills, planning for the future, and learning about the community. In the latter, participants discuss the meaning of community, the community's needs and resources, and their role in the community. Students then plan an individual or group community service activity to address those needs. Participants developed strong connections with a hospital by volunteering as candy-stripers or working in the maintenance, carpentry, office, preschool, or senior center areas. Other students planned gardening and recycling projects at the school.
Students also participate in planning the Life Options classes, enabling close interaction between students and facilitators. These interactive sessions encourage students to think critically about issues and evaluate their own behavior. Goals for the sessions include developing students' communication and conflict resolution skills and helping students set short- and long-term goals.
In Tuolumne County, the program was initiated by a partnership between the county office of education and the Community Action Agency because the county does not have a Junior League. The program director works half-time, and the staff includes a liaison person and about five teacher/facilitators each year. The director meets regularly with the facilitators to resolve problems and share innovations. In addition, an advisory committee composed of school personnel and community representatives provides frequent input on the program's operations.
Student selection in the national program differs among sites. In some programs, students enter TOP voluntarily when they hear of the program; at other schools, facilitators or counselors identify students who are not yet exhibiting negative behaviors but who could be at high risk of leaving school or becoming pregnant. High-risk factors include having a parent or older sibling who did not graduate from high school or who became pregnant as a teenager.
Student selection in the Tuolumne program also varies among sites. At one elementary school, students who do not pass certain classes or have limited academic success are identified by teachers and pulled out into a special class. However, in the other three sites the Tuolumne TOP program is not a pullout program; one of the classes is self-contained, and in the other two TOP is an elective. Although students are still identified by teachers, program staff ensure that there is a mix of high-risk students and high achievers, and the two groups of students work closely together.
The intake form asks students about their school and life experiences, including questions such as "Have you failed any courses this year? Have you been suspended? Did you skip a day? Were you picked up by the police? Have you been pregnant or caused a pregnancy? Do you smoke cigarettes? What is your parents' education level?" Tuolumne schools have only conducted the pre-program survey at this point. "It's too early to tell if the program's having an effect," the program director said. "With most programs like this, you don't expect behavioral changes for five years."
The Tuolumne program director recommends that the national organizers of the TOP program train trainers in the Life Options curriculum, instead of visiting each site to train facilitators. The change would save the travel costs of importing trainers from national headquarters and would benefit all sites trying to institutionalize the program, she said.