The Teen Outreach Program (TOP) began as a project of the Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI), sponsored and operated by local Junior Leagues (JL) in cities across the country. In 1990, TOP was in place in one school in Salem, Virginia, where a lack of support from the principal and staff was creating roadblocks to every activity. When the principal of a Roanoke high school heard TOP described at a JL board meeting and advocated for the program, the TOP coordinator began a pilot program in one class of 20 students at the Roanoke school.
From that beginning, the program has gradually developed and evolved in Roanoke under the constant leadership of the TOP coordinator. In 1994 TOP began a transition from JL sponsorship to a community-based project. The coordinator assembled a community advisory committee that included the local General Assembly representative, the principal of the high school, representatives of agencies with similar missions, health care providers, and others who might be partners in the program. The coordinator and board undertook a process of determining TOP goals and objectives, establishing criteria for a new sponsoring agency, identifying possible matches, and interviewing agency directors and boards. TOP eventually found a home within Family Service of the Roanoke Valley, a private, nonprofit human services organization that wanted to expand its prevention services to youth. The JL TOP coordinator became the TOP director.
Technical assistance from AJLI helped the local TOP staff make effective presentations to the community. In addition, the availability of data from the national evaluation of TOP, which documented its impact, added to the program's appeal. Strong advocates in the school, who knew the program in operation, increased the case for TOP. With funding from United Way, TOP made a first step toward self-sufficiency. A series of powerful articles in the Roanoke Times on the impact of teen pregnancy on the community and a subsequent editorial were also important in attracting support. TOP now receives funding from the State Departments of Health and Education, the city through Community Development Block Grant funds, United Way, the March of Dimes, several foundations, and service organizations.
Relationships with service learning sites, which include a program for handicapped preschoolers, nursing homes, and businesses, are developed by mini planning teams. The teams work out mutual commitments and expectations, as well as logistics. There are no written contracts. Coordination, supervision, and problem solving are managed through planning meetings, personal contact, and open and frequent communication. According to the director, if lines of communication are not open frustration mounts and service learning sites may leave the program.
Other partners include the City of Roanoke school system, which works with TOP in many ways-providing teachers to help implement the curriculum and coordinate service learning, monitoring grading, integrating TOP into English classes, managing school administrative requirements, providing referrals to TOP through the counselors, and planning and staging special events. Prevention Plus, a division of the local mental health department, provides two prevention specialists who help implement the curriculum. Roanoke Adolescent Health Partnership provides Teen Health Clinics and two health educators who help implement the curriculum. The Voluntary Action Center helps identify new volunteers for TOP's tutoring and mentoring programs and provides information on summer youth volunteer opportunities.
These partnership relationships are conducted without written contracts. Personal relationships and open communication are key. However, the full commitment of partners, particularly the schools, from the district administration down, is essential. TOP's director suggests that her long personal history with the program facilitates the trusting nature of these arrangements. However, each of the partners is committed to the program because each gains from its involvement. The program gains credibility from evaluation, and the organizational goals the partners attain through TOP cement these relationships without formal agreements.
The TOP director makes day-to-day decisions in compliance with the policies of Family Service of the Roanoke Valley and of the schools, which host the programs. The Board of Directors of Family Service and a committee of a local youth development coalition provide input on goals, objectives, and the evaluation process. The advisory committee continues to guide strategic planning. Student participants and their families are surveyed at the end of each year for input on TOP content and activities; however, these groups have not been attracted to service on the board.
The TOP director attributes TOP's success in part to networking that she does in two coalitions committed to youth development. Networking has made her aware of grants and funding opportunities and has connected TOP with new partners for the service learning component. Through these coalitions, as well, she hopes to develop a comprehensive plan for coordinating local youth development activities and to remove barriers to partnering with other organizations that share TOP's turf.
TOP in Roanoke has grown from a single class to sites in a school for students with court connections, a school for pregnant and parenting teens, a special education program, a program for educable mentally retarded students, and a church-based project, as well as two high schools. These programs reach about 120 active participants each month. Each year for the period between 1993 to 1997 TOP has shown consistently positive impact, reducing rates of absenteeism, suspension, school drop out, and class failure by substantial amounts. Teen pregnancy rates have also been reduced, but the numbers are so small that significance cannot be assessed. A survey that measured sexual knowledge and resiliency showed significant improvement among TOP students after their TOP experience. All students rated their TOP experience favorably.
Sustaining TOP over the long term has depended on evidence of positive outcomes from the local evaluation, as well as national data. In addition, technical assistance has given the program self-sufficiency in training facilitators, the most costly and uncertain element of program operation. The director is now working to integrate TOP into the English curriculum, which will strengthen the partnership with the school system and make TOP more than an add-on program that can be easily eliminated. She is also working with the Virginia Department of Health, which is TOP's major funder, and a local foundation to spur replication and expansion in other communities through partnerships at the state level.