High schoolers lead alcohol-prevention program for younger students

(From left to right) Edison health and fitness teacher Brenda Corbin smiles with Protecting You/Protecting Me mentors Anisa Ali, Bianey Ochoa, Victoria Simon, Maria Rios, Suadi Mohamud and Ze'Kiera Norwood. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

A program in Minneapolis Public Schools is teaching elementary-aged kids how to make healthy choices while giving high schoolers the chance to serve as mentors.

The Protecting You/Protecting Me program has high school students teaching weekly lessons in elementary classrooms on topics such as the adolescent brain, media literacy and stress management. The program aims to educate students in first through fifth grades on alcohol and its impact on brain development while allowing them to develop a positive connection with high school mentors.

“Grade-school kids learn about healthy choices from someone they look up to,” said Mike Conley, whose Conley Family Foundation funds the program in Minneapolis. “It really can bring into these (high school) kids some sense of self worth that they might not have had.”

The program was developed in 1998 by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which collaborated with Hazelden Publishing and Educational Services to distribute it. Minneapolis Public Schools has utilized the program for about nine years.

Edison health and fitness teacher Brenda Corbin introduced it when she taught at North High School. She said the program has been so popular with the high schoolers that she had to start an application process.

The teenagers teach six to eight weekly lessons at an elementary school, planning them out with their fellow mentors. The program focuses on healthy decision-making and topics such as vehicle safety and doesn’t introduce drugs or alcohol until students are in third grade.

Research has shown that the program increases students’ awareness of the effects of alcohol and increases decision-making, stress-management and vehicle-safety skills. A Journal of the School of Health study found that elementary students who participated in the program demonstrated changed attitudes about alcohol and retained information better than students in a comparison group.

“If they’re growing up with the mindset of making the right decision, it definitely sticks with them as they get older,” said Edison junior Maria Rios, a peer mentor this fall.

The peer mentors said it was challenging to keep the younger students engaged at points but that it was rewarding to develop relationships with them.

Edison junior Suadi Mohamud said participating gave her another reason to stay away from alcohol, noting how younger students are very impressionable. Junior Bianey Ochoa said the kids would emulate her hand gestures and that even their teacher was engaged in the class.

Rios said the younger students learned what they had to do in terms of staying safe, mentioning actions such as sitting in the back seat of a car and wearing a seat belt. She said she thinks the program will help them make better choices when they are older.

The high school mentors receive service-learning hours and a service-learning document from Hazelden for participating in the program. Corbin requires students to maintain passing grades and said 100 percent of the mentors have graduated high school over the past four years.

Many of the high school students talk about wanting to become teachers, she said. Some come from families with drug or alcohol issues, which she said can also inspire their participation.

“It’s a really helpless feeling for them in their families,” she said. “This is something they can do to make a difference.”

Southwest HS to host second Wellness Day

Southwest High School will host a daylong event for all students Jan. 12 that focuses on mental and emotional well being.

The school’s second Wellness Day will include workshops, a film screening, discussions and more. The goals are to get students to look at mental health the same way they look at physical health, create more safe spaces at Southwest and practice more empathy and mindfulness, committee chair June Thiemann said.

“It’s all about creating a culture of wellness at Southwest High School,” said Thiemann, whose kids have attended the school.

“There’s no preventing everything,” she added, “but just being a little bit proactive and getting all this stuff on the table as soon as possible” can help.

Thiemann said the idea for the event stemmed from a mental health emergency at the school two years ago. The school hosted its first Wellness Day last year, and Thiemann said students reported feeling comfortable opening up about difficult topics.

“The main thing is that students really want this,” she said. “They want kind of permission and kind of invitation to talk about real things.”

Students will watch the movie “A Stray,” a film about a young Somali-American man in Minneapolis who befriends a stray dog. Thiemann said the committee plans to end the day with a fun activity such as a mannequin challenge.

The committee received a $5,000 grant from the Minnehaha Creed Watershed District for a yearlong study of how water, wellness and worldview are connected.