All of the fifth-grade students at Frontier Elementary School, all 74 of them, recently spent two days at camp learning how to acquire and model the peer skills that will help them and others become loyal friends, resist negative influences and handle stress.
The workshop, held last week at the R Bar C Boy Scout Ranch east of Payson, was part of the CHAMPS Peer Leadership program for the prevention of drug, alcohol, tobacco use, and other negative behaviors and issues. CHAMPS is an acronym for "Champs Have And Model Positive Peer Skills."
Throughout the rest of the school year, Frontier fifth-graders will practice the skills introduced at the camp.
"This is the second year we've had the program," said Deb Jones, special education teacher at Frontier and coordinator of the CHAMPS Leadership Campout. "It was so positive and so successful last year that we didn't hesitate to continue the program."
Based on the concept that peer leadership training is one of the most effective mechanisms for creating positive change in young people, CHAMPS is targeted at preventing destructive behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse. Training at the camp focused on developing a more positive self-concept, gaining leadership skills, increasing motivation, building refusal skills, learning how to deal with peer pressure, enhancing creativity and developing an appreciation for a team approach to addressing school and community challenges.
"It was great to get them away in cabins with each other at the beginning of the school year," Jones said. "They were able to get to know one another and make new friends."
Participants spent most of their time in group sessions, workshops, and breakout sessions learning and practicing the skills and strategies that will help them make a difference in their lives and in the lives of those they interact with. A research-based program, CHAMPS emphasizes "connectedness" through participation in meaningful activities and "control" through assumption of responsibility.
Based on research by Dr. David Hawkins, the program focuses on three major risk factors, the lack of social bonding to school, home and other institutions; friends who use; and early age of first use. The average age of first use of alcohol in the United States is now 12, with marijuana first use even lower at 11.8 years. By targeting fifth-graders, the program is designed to reach the age group that needs it most.
"When we first arrived at camp on Tuesday at about 1 p.m., we had a group spirit meeting and we talked about how to handle peer pressure positively," Jones said. Then the students attended separate sessions on positive and negative attention, handling stress, and how to recognize clues concerning consequences and choices.
A key component of CHAMPS is its extension throughout the school year through classroom activities, school and community projects, and cross-age peer teaching, so Wednesday morning's activities were geared to laying that foundation. "We broke the kids up into different teams like trashbusters, tutoring younger kids, office helpers, and playground helpers," Jones said.
To further integrate the program into school life, the fifth-graders were given the blue CHAMPS T-shirts they will be expected to wear every Friday throughout the school year.
Frontier teachers who assisted at the campout included Shaun Hardt, Jodi Lorenz, Donna Haught, Carm Locke and Brad Boldt, along with student teachers Peggy Owens and Randy Simpkins.
They were assisted by Dean Pedersen, Payson Unified School District health specialist, and a cadre of high school students, including Ty Brunson, Rylie Scott, Mackenzie Herrera, Garrett Omoto, Chella Butterfield, Sara Siverson and Stephanie Mars.
"The high school students were a big part of the program," Jones said. "We did evaluations at the end, and so many fifth-graders commented on how impressed they were by the high school kids."
According to Pederson, it works both ways. "The high school kids love doing it, and they get a lot out of it. When it's all over there are a lot of hugs from the fifth-graders," he said.
Thanks to tobacco grant money and food donations from Safeway, Bashas' and Wal-Mart, the Frontier program has been relatively inexpensive to institute, and its success has not gone unnoticed. Payson Elementary School is initiating its own CHAMPS program with an overnighter at the camp next week, and Julia Randall Elementary is scheduled to start a similar program at the beginning of the next school year.
"We looked at a lot of different programs," Pederson said. "This one has actually been around for a while."
Pederson especially likes the community involvement component of CHAMPS. "Too often now," he said, "kids get to high school with no conception of what volunteerism is all about."
"We're always looking at modifications," Jones said, "like maybe working a hike into the events at camp. But basically this is a workshop environment, and that means the emphasis is on the work that needs to be done to get the program going."
Of course all work and no play has never been a winning formula with kids, and the key to the program's success is the people who implement it. "Deb Jones and the other teachers like kids," Pederson said, "and that makes all the difference.
"There are teachers I'm sure you couldn't imagine going to camp with, but these teachers show kids they can sing and dance and have fun without having to drink or do drugs."