Published on 04/09/09

UGA helps students TAP into their potential

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

Elbert and Putnam counties will participate in a ground breaking program for high-risk students. What is learned will benefit the entire state, say specialists with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

The Teens as Planners, or TAP, program aims to provide 15 students from each county with experiences that will give them a strong sense of belonging by improving their knowledge and skills relating to community service and workforce development, said Sharon Gibson, the program director.

Students are nominated to participate in the program through school administrators or other community support resources.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with high school students, improving grades as well as retention and job preparation,” said Al Parker, a UGA Extension agent in Putnam County. “We want to take 15 students who have challenges and hopefully guide them through school toward a positive outcome.”

What is learned about the pilot program in Elbert and Putnam counties will be used to develop guidelines to replicate and implement the program across the state.

It’s funded through a grant by USDA Children Youth and Families at Risk - Sustainable Communities Program. The five-year program will start this fall with $100,000. Funding will increase each year as the program expands to include more students.

Youth as decision makers

“Teens will guide the direction we go in,” said Christa Campbell, a UGA Extension agent in Elbert County. “As long as they are interested, they will stay engaged. It should be what they want. Not what we want.”

Students will identify a critical need in the community and learn the skills they need to make a difference. Identifying a big picture problem like homelessness, nutrition or alternative energy may seem ambitious, but this type of thinking is exactly what Gibson has in mind.

“It is a big picture, but we can take small bites out – nibble away until they take a big bite out of a big problem,” Gibson said.

The program has a high-tech focus, including photography, filmmaking, applied science and geographic information systems training.

“Our youth are more technically involved today than in the past. Providing them with these skills will make them marketable upon graduation and help them pursue college or wherever life may take them at that point,” Campbell said.

The Putnam County community is already rallying behind the program, Parker said. “More than 70 people representing several youth organizations came to a community meeting willing to assist with the program,” he said.

The students will visit universities, the state capitol and other locations across state lines. Along the way, they will document their work and compile a documentary of their experiences.

“At the end of the five years we will have two films demonstrating the impact of teens as planners and as contributors,” Gibson said.

Stop dropout, teen pregnancy

High school dropout rates in both Elbert and Putnam exceed the national and state averages. According to the 2008 Georgia County Guide, more than 36 percent of Putnam County students and 38 percent of Elbert County students fail to graduate from high school on time.

The counties have high rates of teen pregnancy. In 2007, 53 percent of pregnancies in Elbert County were to teen mothers. It was 48 percent in Putnam County, according to Kids Count.

“Something has to be done to improve our teen pregnancy and dropout rates in Putnam County,” Parker said. “In five years, I would like to see a much-improved dropout rate and see many of our students continuing education at college.”

“I see this as a program that will provide a support network for youth that may not otherwise have the opportunity to learn needed life skills or have the encouragement needed to graduate on time,” Campbell said. “This program will work because someone is there that cares. It is not just community service, it is the total package. We want to give them the basic life skills they need for graduation and for the rest of their life.”

(April Sorrow is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.