Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALBUQUERQUE - Antoinette Herrera, a fifth-grader at Albuquerque's La Mesa Elementary School, said she'd never even consider smoking after participating in a tobacco education experiment in which she and her classmates put tobacco and water in a jar for a couple of days.
"We took it out and rolled it up in a paper towel to make it look like a cigarette," she said with a look of disgust. "It was black and it smelled really bad, and that's how your lungs look if you smoke."
The experiment was part of the 4-H STARS program, a new substance abuse prevention education course offered through the Bernalillo County office of New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. Fifth graders at La Mesa and Emerson Elementary Schools are participating in the nine-session course during the spring 2001 semester.
STARS, an acronym for Students Taking Active Responsibility for Success, is a pilot project to replace the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. program, which was discontinued last year in all Albuquerque elementary schools because of budget constraints.
"When the D.A.R.E. program pulled out it left a big, gaping hole," said La Mesa principal Barbara Trujillo. "The STARS program is definitely filling that gap. I'd like to see it expand to include our fourth-graders as well."
STARS grew out of NMSU's 4-H Share/Care program, which provides after-school activities for kids to build their self-esteem and teaches them community values while steering them away from drugs.
"The after-school activities have reached a lot of kids, but teachers at La Mesa and Emerson saw an additional need for an in-school course that would reach all their fifth-grade students," said Justin Trager, 4-H Share/Care coordinator for Bernalillo County.
Trager designed the STARS curriculum to reflect 4-H goals of empowering students with positive attitudes and skills that allow them to make good choices in life while teaching them about the dangers of substance abuse. That contrasts with D.A.R.E.'s "Just Say No" approach.
"We combine direct education about tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs and how they harm the body with hands-on activities and group discussions that build life skills, self-esteem, and decision-making and goal-setting abilities," Trager said. "The larger thing is we don't go in with 'Just say no because I told you to.' We recognize that children need to make decisions for themselves, so we want to supply them with the information on why they might want to 'say no' and the skills to make the right decision."
The course includes a video series developed by the Children's Television Workshop, which created Sesame Street. The video, Brainstorm: the Truth About Your Brain on Drugs, teaches how the brain and nervous system work and how drugs affect them. It includes personal accounts of experiences by ex-addict teens and short segments on legal drugs that can kill, such as tobacco and alcohol.
Most class time, however, focuses on games and activities, such as the tobacco-in-a-jar experiment. Class conversations emphasize positive self and community attitudes, such as the meaning of success and how to succeed personally, Trager said.
"The purpose of the program is to help them become a success in life," Trager said. "We're helping these kids shine and become stars–4-H STARS."
About 200 fifth graders are participating at La Mesa and Emerson, two inner-city schools located in Albuquerque's low-income Trumbull Village and La Mesa neighborhoods.
Most of the students are Hispanic with limited English proficiency, because Albuquerque's immigrant community is heavily concentrated in those areas. La Mesa, for example, has one of the highest percentages of foreign-born students in the school district. Fifty percent of families there are recent immigrants from Mexico, Cuba or Central America. About 40 percent of La Mesa students come from families that live below the poverty line.
"These kids have no outlet to talk about substance abuse and related issues, and yet they see these things in their everyday lives and they become hush-hush about it," Trujillo said. "STARS is providing them with a much-needed avenue for discussion."
Lindsie Farmer, who teaches Antoinette Herrera's fifth grade class, said her students have clearly benefited. "These kids are being forced to grow up quick and they're often faced with life-shattering decisions," she said. "This class helps plant the seeds for making good decisions about their bodies and their minds."
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