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Vail Valley Voices: SOS key to success in school

Mike Gass
Vail, CO, Colorado

Eagle County Schools’ collaborative efforts with local non-profits are starting to pay community-wide dividends.

Most of the nation’s youth development models underscore the importance of out-of-school time for promoting healthy development among young people and families.

To this end, there are many non-profits both locally and nationally that provide specific prevention and intervention strategies by engaging youth outside of school.

But how does one know if the specific strategies employed are having the intended outcomes? While conducting evaluation studies can feel like a daunting task, especially for entities operating on a shoestring budget, one locally born and raised organization, SOS Outreach, has made great strides in this area.

SOS Outreach offers a value-based leadership curriculum that incorporates five core values: courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, and compassion.

In her recent doctoral dissertation that was based on interviews with SOS participants, Lisa L. Schrader Ph.D., NCSP, showed that the core components of SOS Outreach programming include opportunity, engagement and longevity, which all interact to increase resiliency.

SOS Outreach has a long history of collecting evaluative data to provide a feedback loop for program design and to better understand the short and long-term benefits to participating youth.

This includes email and phone surveys of past participants, individual program feedback surveys, and pre- and post-test surveys on a wide range of well-established predictors of healthy development.

Results from these various methodologies converge to indicate that there are a number of benefits to individual participants in scholastic performance, future academic intentions, leadership, self-esteem, self-efficacy, health, social skills, decision-making, as well as an increased interest in skiing or snowboarding.

With respect to school-related outcomes in particular, results show that as length in the program increases, so does the perception that SOS helps with in-school performance, the belief that staying in school is important, and the intent to go to college.

Although the totality of evidence collected to date on SOS Outreach program impacts is very encouraging, it is difficult to know with certainty whether these perceived impacts translate into school-based performance gains such as grades, attendance and assessments of content knowledge and whether any such gains exceed what is achieved by similarly at-risk youth who are not served by the program.

Fortunately, Eagle County is relatively unique in that it has excellent inter-agency collaboration with a highly engaged school district.

School districts can be insular and protective of their data, releasing only what is mandated by statute, but Eagle County Schools has fostered data-sharing systems over the past five years that allow access to school-based data sources while at the same time protecting the confidentiality of individual students.

All of this has resulted in an unprecedented opportunity for SOS Outreach to address the usually elusive question for most non-profits: Does participation in the program directly contribute to increased student learning and greater academic achievement?

Starting with the 2011-12 program year, SOS Outreach was able to develop and employ a refined selection and recruitment process that supported the creation of a comparison group of students that are not served by the program, but otherwise have similar characteristics to those that are.

This research design, coupled with the ability to use various school-based metrics in the analysis, will allow for a much more thorough examination of the extent to which SOS Outreach is able to support the district’s initiatives, such as increasing student readiness for learning, closing the achievement gap, supporting English language learners, and increasing graduation rates.

Mike Gass is the executive director of student services, innovative programs and technology for the Eagle County School District.


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