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Keywords:

  • partnerships;
  • service learning;
  • successful collaborations;
  • youth violence prevention

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOLS
  7. REFERENCES

BACKGROUND: Researchers, schools, and community organizations are increasingly interested in forming partnerships to improve health and learning outcomes for adolescents. School-based service learning programs with young adolescents have been shown to improve students' health and educational outcomes. Quality school-based service learning practice requires partnerships that are collaborative, mutually beneficial, and address community needs. This article examines core elements of a community-school-university partnership engaged in implementing and evaluating Lead Peace, a service learning program for urban middle school youth.

METHODS: The partnership was assessed through (1) semistructured group interviews with program facilitators at each school at the end of the 2006 to 2007 and 2007 to 2008 school years; (2) key informant interviews with school administrators; and (3) participant observations of partnership meetings. Qualitative analysis was conducted to identify common and emerging themes that contribute to the success of the Lead Peace partnership.

RESULTS: Ten themes were identified as keys to the success of the Lead Peace partnership: (1) communication; (2) shared decision making; (3) shared resources; (4) expertise and credibility; (5) sufficient time to develop and maintain relationships; (6) champions and patron saints; (7) being present; (8) flexibility; (9) a shared youth development orientation; and (10) recognition of other partners' priorities.

CONCLUSIONS: Partnerships that are essential to quality service learning practice require deliberate planning and ongoing attention. Elements of the successful Lead Peace partnership may be useful for other collaborators to consider.

Researchers, schools, and community agencies are increasingly forming partnerships in efforts to improve health and educational outcomes for adolescents. As interest in collaborative approaches increases, more information is needed on the necessary qualities of successful partnerships.

School-based service learning programs with young adolescents show exciting evidence of reducing antisocial and violent behaviors1,2 and school failure.3 Effective service learning programs require successful partnerships. In 2008, the National Youth Leadership Council established practice standards for K-12 service learning.4 One standard for quality service learning practice is partnerships that are collaborative, mutually beneficial, and address community needs. Quality service learning efforts typically involve a variety of partners including young people, teachers, families, community members, and community organizations. Guided by a shared vision and common goals, successful service learning partnerships feature regular 2-way communication, to keep partners informed and to leverage and utilize resources effectively. The process of establishing service learning partnerships requires examination of each partner's expectations and a commitment to bridge differences in cultures between partner organizations. Typically partners work together to meet specific goals and share information about assets and needs that each brings to the partnership, resulting in viewing each other as valued resources.4 In an analysis of lessons learned from a national service learning demonstration effort, Ballis5 concluded that service learning practice can become highly effective only with the cultivation of partner relationships that are long term, well designed, and mutually beneficial.

Lead Peace, a middle school service learning demonstration study, is guided by principles of participatory research. As with effective service learning practice, partnerships are central to participatory research. Over the past 20 years, participatory research approaches have gained credibility in fields of health and education because of their ability to incorporate community members' experiences and expertise and ensure the cultural validity of interventions.6,7 Participatory research has been identified as a key strategy for effectively working toward equity in health and education.8,9 With school-based intervention research, participatory approaches expand the ownership, reach, and decision making to include school and community partners in development, implementation, and evaluation of programming. Participatory research explicitly recognizes that building on the strengths, resources, and relationships that exist within schools and communities is critical to research success.10 In school-based participatory research efforts, researchers, schools, and community partners work together in ways that recognize each other's expertise, with the shared goal of producing knowledge that directly applies to improving school and community outcomes.10–13

Thus, collaborative partnerships that address community needs are essential to quality service learning practice and to participatory research. Key considerations for partnerships involved in implementing and evaluating school-based service learning programs include understanding the context of schools, recognizing the benefits of school-community-research partnerships, establishing trust, and designating program champions, described below.

Understanding the context of schools is especially important for school-based partnerships. In 1 study, Batenberg14 concluded that school and community agency collaborators represent 2 radically different cultures that require time to identify and work through their differences. Similarly, Wong15 cautions researchers and community partners to remember that what matters most to schools is student attendance and academic performance. Wong notes that academic achievement, not solely health promotion or symptom reduction, must be a foundation for school-academic-community partnerships.

Recognizing the mutual benefits of partnerships is also important. With service learning, substantial benefits of community partnerships include both students and teachers receiving information, skills, resources, and assistance to meet genuine needs; community agencies helping to meet needs that could not otherwise be met by paid school staff; a widening of understanding about community issues; and a pooling of services and resources to meet community needs.16 For researchers, partnered approaches maximize the relevance and salience of the programming being developed and engage schools and community agencies in the process. These agencies will be likely end users of effective programs and will influence broader community attitudes about youth programming. For school and community partners, partnering holds the promise of establishing an evidence base for sustaining locally relevant, effective youth programming.

Establishing trusting relationships is another essential consideration in partnerships between researchers, community agencies, and schools. Regrettably, some economically challenged communities and communities of color have historically had negative experiences with research. Especially in such contexts, it is advisable to understand and explicitly acknowledge the historical context and recognize the expertise that all partners bring to a collaborative project.15,17

Program champions, persons who take responsibility for ensuring that a program moves forward, may be essential to schools' adoption of innovative curricula.15,18 Champions may be key to sustaining partnership activities over time and improving student outcomes.19 In addition to champions, patron saints at the school and district level can provide valuable support for implementation and generate credibility for new programs.20

Although partnerships are frequently identified as important to improving health and educational outcomes for young people, additional research documenting elements of successful partnerships is needed. This article will examine elements of a partnership between community agencies, K-8 public schools, and the University of Minnesota Prevention Research Center (UMN PRC) to implement and evaluate a middle school service learning program. Our intent is to share lessons learned that may benefit others involved with K-12 service learning partnerships.

METHODS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOLS
  7. REFERENCES

Lead Peace is a school-based service learning program for urban middle school students that aims to reduce violence involvement and school failure by promoting specific skills, motivations, opportunities, and supports in students' lives. The Lead Peace demonstration study was made possible by a partnership involving the Minneapolis Public School District (MPS), Hennepin County Village Social Services, and UMN PRC. Lead Peace initially involved 4 K-8 schools, selected in partnership with MPS, assigned to program and comparison conditions. At the end of Study Year 1, MPS closed 1 of the study's comparison schools due to declining enrollment and budgetary constraints. A new comparison school was added at the beginning of Study Year 2, selected in partnership with the MPS. Most participants from the original comparison school transferred to this school or to Lead Peace program schools, as all schools are in close physical proximity. All study schools have ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged student bodies. The study cohort includes students from the eighth grade class of 2009 at each of these schools. Weekly classroom service learning sessions were held in the program schools during students' sixth, seventh, and eighth grade years. Service learning programming was led by facilitator teams including staff from the program schools and the MPS District, social workers from Hennepin County Village Social Services, youth workers from local community agencies, and UMN PRC staff. Lead Peace partners successfully implemented service learning programs in the 2 program schools, involving as many as 130 students in 45 weekly class sessions per year. Details regarding the Lead Peace service learning program and evaluation are found elsewhere.21–23

Instruments

Partnership elements of Lead Peace were assessed through (1) semistructured group interviews with Lead Peace program facilitators at each school at the end of the 2006 to 2007 and 2007 to 2008 school years, with a focus on identifying challenges, successes, and perceptions of program implementation; (2) key informant interviews with school administrators from program and comparison schools in spring 2007 and 2008, with a focus on leadership activities available to students in study schools, school and neighborhood climate factors, and impressions of the Lead Peace program; and (3) participant observations of regular meetings of Lead Peace partners, regular planning meetings with the Principal Investigator and Evaluation Coordinator, and evaluation instrument design meetings, to better understand challenges and successes of the Lead Peace partnership.

Procedures

Semistructured group interviews with Lead Peace facilitators were conducted at each school at the end of 2006 to 2007 and 2007 to 2008 school years. Interviews focused on identifying challenges, successes, and perceptions of program implementation. Key informant interviews were conducted with school administrators from all schools in spring 2007 and 2008 and focused on leadership activities available to students in the study schools, school and neighborhood climate factors, and impressions of the Lead Peace program. Participant observations took place at meetings of Lead Peace partners and research team planning meetings, to better understand factors that contributed to success of the Lead Peace partnership. Interviews and observations were conducted by a coinvestigator with expertise in qualitative methodology. Facilitator interviews were recorded and transcribed. Notes were taken during key informant interviews, using a standardized data collection form. Participant observations were documented in meeting summaries and notes.

Data Analysis

Group and key informant interviews were analyzed for common and emerging themes using NVIVO© software (QSR International, Doncaster, Australia). Program facilitators and school administrators conducted member checks of analysis summaries for accuracy and clarification. This information was triangulated with information from participant observations.

RESULTS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOLS
  7. REFERENCES

Ten themes were identified as keys to the success of the Lead Peace partnership: (1) communication; (2) shared decision making; (3) shared resources; (4) expertise and credibility; (5) sufficient time to develop and maintain relationships; (6) champions and patron saints; (7) being present; (8) flexibility; (9) a shared youth development orientation; and (10) recognition of other partners' priorities. Each of these themes is detailed below.

Partners Communicate Regularly

Program facilitators, program school administrators, and evaluation staff met monthly to keep each other informed and create a safe environment to discuss program implementation and evaluation challenges. During these meetings, partners updated each other on the progress of program implementation and evaluation, challenges, success stories, and school events. Meetings routinely included decision making, planning, and problem solving around program implementation and evaluation. Meetings alternated between the 2 program school sites and neighborhood agency locations; program school administrators generally attended when the meeting was held at their school. In addition, program facilitators had weekly meetings after classroom sessions, to reflect on progress with programming, and incorporate information from the partners' meetings.

Partners Share Decision Making

Lead Peace partners shared decision making in many areas. Facilitators regularly sought input on program topics and activities. When facilitators identified new opportunities or resources that could be incorporated into the program, they discussed it with UMN PRC and school staff, and together made decisions about how to proceed. Likewise, UMN PRC evaluation staff asked partners to review and refine evaluation instruments, and participate in decisions about evaluation procedures and methods. When a comparison school was closed at the end of Year 1, MPS administrators, UMN PRC staff and other partners worked together to identify and add a new comparison school and facilitate a smooth transition.

Partners Contribute and Share Resources

Partners' support for each other modeled group principles of democracy, mutual aid, and empowerment used in Lead Peace programming. The research grant that provided the major source of financial support for the Lead Peace demonstration study was housed at the University of Minnesota; UMN PRC provided financial management and grant reporting. The grant supported UMN PRC and community agency service learning program staff, program expenses (eg, materials, transportation, refreshments), evaluation staff, and evaluation-related expenses.

The Minneapolis Public School District developed and provided training on the Lead Peace curriculum. Schools provided class time for implementation, staff to facilitate Lead Peace sessions, office space, and student and parent contact lists. Community agencies committed staff to refine Lead Peace programming, provide training, and facilitate Lead Peace sessions throughout the school year. Schools and community agencies provided program transportation. Program facilitators developed a notebook of supplemental Lead Peace activities that was shared across schools.

Partners Each Bring Expertise and Credibility

All partners contributed expertise and credibility to the project. A Minneapolis Public School District invitation made the Lead Peace demonstration study possible. Schools' administrators allowed service learning to be integrated into their regular classroom curricula. Program facilitators, teams of community, and school staff, determined the day-to-day implementation of the Lead Peace program at each school. The UMN PRC led the evaluation.

Community agencies contributed social work, youth development, and community organizing expertise to program development and implementation. Community partners' deep roots in the community, long-standing relationships with the schools, and understanding of the students and their families allowed for programming tailored to the social context of the study schools. The schools provided essential expertise on school climate, organizational dynamics, political insights, and school operations. The UMN PRC contributed expertise in evaluation, youth development research and best practices, and the credibility of the University.

Partners Require Sufficient Time to Develop and Maintain Relationships

At Program School A, program facilitators and their community agencies had a history of working with the school prior to the Lead Peace study which facilitated smooth implementation in Study Year 1. In Study Year 2, these relationships were tested as the school was reorganized to comply with No Child Left Behind regulations resulting in turnover of all school administrators and most school staff. Strong existing relationships between the school, community and UMN PRC partners, and established relationships between program staff and the school's student body provided credibility and continuity during this transition.

At Program School B, there were no preexisting relationships between community facilitators and the school which inhibited communication and program implementation during Study Year 1. In Study Year 2, this school's principal helped to identify program facilitators with established positive working relationships with the school, which greatly enhanced implementation of the Lead Peace program.

Presence of Champions and Patron Saints

Both program schools had a lead facilitator who served as a “champion” for Lead Peace, with responsibility for moving the project forward, understanding school procedures and climate, and maintaining productive working relationships with school administration. At each school, the lead facilitator made sure that all program facilitators had what they needed to implement weekly Lead Peace sessions, took responsibility for scheduling and logistics, communicated regularly with school administration, and was the main point of contact between UMN PRC, community, and school partners. Both program schools had key administrators who took on a “patron saint” role20 with the necessary authority and influence to ensure that Lead Peace programming and evaluation had adequate space, time, and school support.

Nonschool Partners Must “Be Present”

Beyond being present during Lead Peace sessions, partners had an ongoing presence at program schools. Program facilitators from community agencies were involved in a range of school activities, the UMN PRC program facilitator had an office at one of the schools, and UMN PRC evaluation staff occasionally attended school functions not directly related to Lead Peace activities. Another aspect of being present was holding all partnership meetings during the school year at school sites.

Partners Are Flexible

Lead Peace is a learner-centered curriculum. Facilitators brought years of experience and skills to program implementation. The pace of classroom sessions was tailored to the development of each student group and modified as needed to acknowledge unusual events such as a neighborhood homicide, or a fight in school. UMN PRC staff worked closely with facilitators and schools to time evaluation elements such as surveys and observations. UMN PRC staff were sensitive to requests to include additional evaluation elements. When a demonstration study comparison school closed, flexibility on the part of all partners was essential to accommodating newly transferred students into the program, recruiting a new comparison school, and adapting the study evaluation design to accommodate these changes.

Partners Share a Youth Development Orientation

All partners share a youth development philosophy and believe in youth's ability to lead and contribute. Because this philosophy is at the core of K-12 service learning,24 this shared orientation was essential to implementing this project with integrity. The community agencies facilitating Lead Peace have a long history of community and group work with students, families, and schools, are very familiar with the community context and relationships, and are aware of additional community resources, expertise sets that allow them to provide real-world opportunities and supports needed for positive youth development.

Partners Recognize Each Others' Priorities

Each partner recognizes others' priorities. Facilitators recognize the schools' focus on academics and behavioral issues and work within the schools' philosophy and approach on behavioral and disciplinary matters. In addition, facilitators adjusted service learning program delivery to accommodate academic testing dates and school holidays.

The schools recognize UMN PRC needs to communicate with parents and have access to students to conduct a rigorous program evaluation. Cognizant of the demands of academic testing, UMN PRC staff worked with the schools to determine the least disruptive times to administer annual classroom surveys and other evaluation activities involving students.

DISCUSSION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOLS
  7. REFERENCES

Community agencies, K-8 public schools, and the UMN PRC have formed a successful partnership to conduct the Lead Peace middle school service learning demonstration study. The current analysis identified 10 elements that contributed to the success of the partnership. Most importantly, this partnership did not “just happen.” The partnership required that each organization has a core mission compatible with positive youth development and the practice of service learning with middle grades students; when this orientation or related expertise was missing, implementation suffered. Other interrelated elements contributed to an effective partnership. Communication is necessary to share in decision making, share resources, and recognize other partner organizations' expertise and priorities. Partners must be present in order to put in the time necessary for developing relationships. Champions and patron saints need to provide and receive timely information from the other partners to successfully lead program implementation. Partners are better able to be flexible when they understand the other organizations' priorities and recognize their respective expertise.

Although communication at monthly meetings takes time, these meetings are a valued forum in which to share ideas and plans, solve problems, make decisions and ensure that partners have a shared understanding of program implementation and evaluation approaches. Regular communication also helped build trust between the partners, which takes times to develop15 and is especially important in communities that have not traditionally had a voice in such partnerships.17

Regular meetings are also an opportunity to identify and offer needed resources, such as transportation or additional staff time. Communication also helps partners appreciate each others' expertise. If partners operated in silos, they might not value the expertise that others bring as highly as they do when they share perspectives and use their collective expertise to make decisions. Indeed, regular forums for planning, problem solving, and decision making are critical for effective service learning practice4 and for participatory research.11

Involvement in middle school service learning needed to be compatible with partnering organizations' core mission and expertise. In Study Year 1, an agency whose expertise did not extend to school-based service learning was unsuccessful in implementing Lead Peace programming. The ability to successfully implement Lead Peace programming in Study Year 1 at Program School A was linked to service learning facilitators having worked at this school for several years prior to the demonstration study. Conversely, the lack of a prior relationship between Program School B and service learning facilitators at this school resulted in implementation challenges in year 1.

Champions and patron saints contributed to successful program implementation, consistent with previous research.15,18,20 Although important, the patron saint role in itself did not ensure success. Although a patron saint existed in the form of the principal at Program School B, this role was not sufficient to ensure successful implementation in Study Year 1, without a program champion and deep working relationships. Additionally, the patron saint role may be transferable. At Program School A, with a planned effort from partners, the patron saint role successfully transferred to a new principal during Study Year 2.

Flexibility was essential for Lead Peace partners. Lead Peace demonstration study schools faced several major challenges during the project period, including closing of one comparison school, extensive staff turnover at a program school, and integration of students formerly attending the comparison school into the program schools, requiring adaptation and flexibility from all partners.

Last, partnering organizations honored priorities that are inherent within schools. Implementation and evaluation schedules were adapted when students needed to prepare for academic testing. Although Lead Peace is valued by administrators, schools are ultimately evaluated based on students' academic outcomes. It was essential for Lead Peace partners to respect and work within this context.15

Limitations

Although the elements discussed here contributed to the Lead Peace partnership, a limitation of our study is that we are unable to determine which are most important. Additionally, it is not clear if all of these elements are applicable in other settings. The primary focus of the Lead Peace study is students' outcomes; examining key elements of the partnership with available process evaluation data is a secondary focus. As researchers undertake projects with schools and community groups, research should continue to critically evaluate factors that contribute to successful partnerships.

Conclusions

Partnerships essential to quality service learning practice and participatory research do not “just happen”—they require deliberate planning and ongoing attention. Regular communication, shared responsibility for decision making and contribution of resources, complementary expertise and credibility, time to develop relationships, committed individuals willing to move projects forward, presence in project implementation sites, flexibility, project-organization fit, and recognition of each others' priorities were key elements to the successful Lead Peace partnership. These elements may be useful to consider in undertaking future school-community-university partnerships.

IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOLS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOLS
  7. REFERENCES

In an era of limited resources, partnerships are increasingly important to the delivery of school-based health programming. The experience in the Lead Peace study indicates conscious effort is required to develop and maintain partnerships. School leaders should allocate sufficient time to get to know organizations before inviting them to begin partnerships, learn more about an organization's goals and time commitment, and how their resources will complement other school programming. Administrators should ask organizations what resources they need from schools, what their time commitment will be, and how school personnel will be kept informed.

Likewise, groups seeking to partner with schools should allocate time for developing the relationship and securing true buy-in and partnership from schools—in the Lead Peace study, just showing up for program implementation proved unsuccessful. Agency staff should plan to spend time in schools, offer assistance beyond their program, and keep school staff informed of their program. Partners must learn and respect the school's rules and have flexibility to deal with unexpected situations and changes at schools.

All parties need to be prepared to share decision making that incorporates the needs of schools and partners. Shared decision making requires sufficient communication and information between all partners. Regular meetings are essential for ongoing communication—Lead Peace partners met monthly—to share information and allow for timely decision making.

Although collaborative partnerships do not, in themselves, reduce risks for adolescent violence and school failure, positive youth outcomes are more likely to be achieved when partnerships are equipped for developing and managing effective prevention efforts.25 Our mixed-methods evaluation strategies will allow us to determine if the Lead Peace program was successful in reducing these risks by building specific skills, opportunities, and supports among middle grade students from urban, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Human Subjects Approval Statement

All study protocols were approved by the Minneapolis Public Schools Research Department and the University of Minnesota institutional review board.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOLS
  7. REFERENCES
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    Secor-Turner M, Sieving R, Widome R, Plowman S, Vanden Berk E. Active parent consent for health surveys with middle school students: processes and outcomes. J Sch Health . 2010;80(2):7379.
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