Creating Safe Spaces for Children in Schools in Compton, Calif.

The Head Start program at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science planned and implemented a substance abuse prevention project in Compton, Calif., that worked to change community norms and behaviors that put children at risk of substance abuse.

The project employed a "civic organizing" strategy that worked to build partnerships between citizens and government. It was part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) national program, Free to Grow: Head Start Partnerships to Promote Substance-Free Communities.

Key Results

  • Drew Free to Grow Coalition began as an active forum for a diverse group of community organizations and residents. The coalition:
    • Persuaded the local police to have the area around the Washington Elementary School declared a Drug-Free School Zone
    • Organized block parties and clean up days
    • Recruited volunteers to expand a children's storytelling program
    • Developed a telephone hotline to connect families with tutoring resources.
  • In the last three years of the project, Free to Grow shifted its focus from community organizing to building school-based "safe space" task forces. The task forces included parents who worked with school representatives to improve the physical, social and cultural environment of some of the toughest schools in the country.
  • Although safe space task forces were established in two Compton elementary schools (Washington and Kelly) and four Head Start centers, differing agendas within the Compton Unified School District and leadership problems among the task forces prevented their expansion to additional sites.
  • A parent advocate component of the program, which trained former Head Start parents in leadership skills, civic organizing and substance abuse prevention, ultimately fizzled out, partly due to welfare-reform work requirements.
  • Over the pilot period, the youth advocates trained by the project sponsored a number of events that allowed youth to socialize in a drug-free environment, including:
    • "Unity in the Community" dance that attracted 200 youth
    • Field trips
    • Fashion shows
    • A talent show in which food and clothing were collected for needy families.
  • At the end of the pilot, none of the Free to Grow components was integrated into Head Start and no plans were in place to sustain any of the components, except for one elementary school task force.

Evaluation Findings

  • According to evaluators from Mathematica Policy Research:

    • Although project staff demonstrated success in grassroots organizing, they lacked the relationship and consensus-building skills necessary to overcome major obstacles in the community and in the Head Start grantee environment.
    • At the community level, major performance problems within the school district, as well as tension between blacks and Latinos, created obstacles to implementation that were compounded by leadership changes and serious performance problems at Charles Drew and Head Start.