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Let the students choose their path: the Ridgeview Middle School success story

 By Jean-Étienne Sheehy - NBATC Communications Coordinator

The Ridgeview Middle School teaches 289 students from grades 6 to 8 in the Oromocto region. Wendy Carlisle, the school coordinator, with Julie Carr and Pat Kilfillen, two public health nurses, facilitate the school's first Middle School TATU Club, with the help of a Take Action Against Tobacco Use grant from the Department of Social Development. 

The group addresses a specific problem to this age group: decreasing the number of susceptible youth, that is those at risk for starting to smoke, even if there is a very low number of actual smokers within the student population.  

As seen in the 2012-2013 edition of New Brunswick's Student Wellness Survey, Grades 6 to 12, grade 8 students are those the most at risk of starting to smoke, at a rate of 29%.

"Students in grades 7 and 8 are part of the group. They have different goals, like presenting the dangers of smoking to the grade 6 population, and getting the message out to the community," explains Julie.

She notes that the school had a partnership with Oromocto High School during the last five years. Their club came in every spring to do presentations on the negative effects of smoking. The enthusiasm of the Ridgeview student population after these annual visits paved the way to this initiative. 

"Ridgeview's students really enjoyed these presentations. Last year, we asked them if they were interested in starting their own group, so they could start providing initiatives throughout the school year," says Julie. 

Both Julie and Pat had experience with TATU groups in local High Schools; Julie worked for the group in Oromocto and Pat was involved with Fredericton High School's group. 

"We inform young people about the dangers of smoking and encourage them not to start. The group's promotional ideas all come from the students," says Pat.

Julie says she welcomes such a program, even at the age group served by the school.

"I'm also a parent of a child who goes to the school. I'm very supportive of this group being initiated here because it gives students the information and education they need to make healthy choices in the future. As a parent, I feel like it's important to be transparent with the information your child needs. If they're ever put in a social situation with peer pressure, they know how to handle themselves and they can make the right choice."

Pat stresses that beyond the smoke-free message, the program also builds self-confidence and camaraderie amongst the students by offering everyone a place based on their skills, personality and willingness to contribute to the group.  

"There's a place for everyone. You have students who are more creative. They will help to design posters and bulletin boards. Other students are more tech-minded, so they put together presentations or videos. Some students like to work from the sidelines and they put the displays together. The TATU group promotes friendship and skill-building, beyond public speaking," she notes proudly.

These life-skills are not only useful in the context of the group, but they also have an impact outside of the school grounds.

"We promote high levels of mental fitness. It impacts the students when there's risky behaviours involved, but it also impacts their peers and their friends. They will pass the message along, and it decreases risky behaviours and increases self-esteem," says Pat. 

Wendy agrees that the impact of the group goes beyond the Ridgeview Middle School, once students leave for High School. 

"If the students keep our message in the back of their minds when they're offered a cigarette, they will say no because if they didn't think smoking was cool back when they were part of the group, they'll think the same thing in the future'" says Wendy.

One of the many successes of Ridgeview Middle School's group is the ability to gather students around a common cause. 

"The kids want to be part of this. They're excited to get out there and talk to other kids, either to help them quit or to avoid starting in the first place. They're real go-getters. They love learning, but they also love teaching others," says Wendy.

This is reflected in the different initiatives suggested by the students, according to Pat.

"The program is peer-led. We guide the students and we listen to their ideas. They were working on a Christmas card campaign. They also worked on bulletin boards that parents will see when they come to the school. One of the students wants to put up a display at the local library. There's so many ideas coming from the students."

Wendy, Julie and Pat hope the group will continue year after year, especially with the excitement of grade 6 students.

"They want to join the program, but because of the timing of the lunch hour, they can't," notes Wendy.

"We hope to have everyone involved next year, because the Grade 6 students are new and want to fit in. This is the perfect program to want to fit in to," says Julie.

The school serves a diverse population according to Julie, with children coming from military families, first nation communities and rural areas. Pat says that beyond socioeconomic factors, exposure or accessibility, students need to feel connected to a student group to maintain their positive and healthy behaviours.  

"Students who are on their own are more likely to be involved in risky behaviours. If we keep students busy at school either by joining a sports team or a club, they're less likely to start smoking. By the nature of being a teenager, students are at risk of starting to smoke, just because of the age," she said.

Julie says she's proud to have received support from the school and the initiatives suggested by the students, like promoting their message within the school by creating a section with displays and books relating to tobacco in the school's library.

"You wouldn't think students from grade 6 to 8 would have so many different ideas on how the program could expand and how they can reach different targets of the population. It's amazing to see their minds go on in that direction."

Pat notes the importance of the Department of Social Development in achieving the program.

"We were able to purchase educational resources for students as well as promotional things like t-shirts, arts supplies and prizes for contests. This grant is a tremendous amount of money for a school this size and we're very grateful for this opportunity."

Wendy says she's very proud of the student participation of the program.

"We weren't sure how many students would sign up. We have 16 on a regular basis, primarily in grade 7. They're a very vocal group and their goal is to get the word out there."

Story and picture used with permission from the Ridgeview Middle School.

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