From the beginning, OMI leadership anticipated that youth would be a central focus of its efforts to strengthen families and reduce divorce rates. The 2001 statewide OMI survey found that Oklahomans marry for the first time earlier than other Americans on average 2.5 years younger. For these youth and young adults, and even for those who delay marriage, it was felt that relationship and marriage education could help establish a firmer foundation for successful marriages. The same survey found that respondents ages 18 to 24 were more likely than older respondents to say they would consider relationship education such as workshops or classes to strengthen their relationship. This finding opened the door for offering services to youth.
General approach. The question was how best to deliver healthy relationship education to youth. One opportunity that stood out was high schools. In Oklahoma high schools, as in other states, students were already being offered elective courses that included components on marriage and relationships. These topics were covered in Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) classes. In Oklahoma, each FACS course must meet state-approved standards, but teachers have the flexibility to design their own materials and choose supplementary curriculum material.
There was no comprehensive relationship education curriculum consistently utilized in FACS courses, however, and this created a good opportunity for collaboration with the OMI. The relationship education curriculum that FACS teachers had been using focused mainly on the legal aspects of relationships and marriage rather than on their emotional and interpersonal aspects. By making a comprehensive marriage and relationship curriculum available to those who taught FACS courses on marriage and family life, OMI leaders hoped teachers would offer this more comprehensive instruction to their students.
The curriculum adaptation. To improve the curriculum for high school students, the OMI had to look beyond its statewide marriage education curriculum, PREP®, because PREP® was not designed for adolescents. A search for curricula that would meet the FACS standards and focus on skills-based education and information about relationships and marriage led to the Connections curriculum, developed by Charlene Kamper, a California-based high school teacher and certified family life educator. To ensure consistency with PREP®, the OMI asked the authors of Connections and PREP® to work together to create an adaptation that would increase the focus on communication and conflict management skills and be consistent with key PREP® concepts.
Two years of development resulted in Connections+PREP®, with versions for younger and older adolescents. Dating and Emotions is a 17-hour curriculum to be offered in classes open to students in grades 8-12. Relationships and Marriage is an 18-hour curriculum for students in high school grades 11 and 12 and first and second year college students. The two versions reflect the differing needs and relationship trajectories of the two age groups. Dating and Emotions is designed to help teens recognize and understand healthy dating practices and regulate the intense emotions that often accompany dating in adolescence. Relationships and Marriage is intended to help older adolescents and young adults learn what it means to form and sustain a healthy relationship, marriage, and family life. It is designed to increase teens self-understanding by helping them explore personality, the effect of family experiences on expectations for marriage and relationships, and life goals. Just under half of the Relationships and Marriage curriculum lessons focus on marriage, with the remaining focusing on personality, relationships, and communication.
Implementation. Implementation of the Connections+PREP® curriculum began with a pilot in 2002. The curriculum developers trained 24 teachers, who then tried out the new curriculum in their classrooms. The teachers were enthusiastic about the material and reported that it was highly engaging for their students. Following the pilot, the OMI made the curriculum available free of charge to any interested FACS teacher, through the annual statewide teachers conference. Because the curriculum was designed to be used out of the box, a simple two-hour overview was provided at the conference to introduce teachers to the material. At the request of FACS teachers, however, the OMI began in 2006 to sponsor a more in-depth training lasting from one to two days. The expanded training has been well received, because it gives teachers an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the material. They receive instructional and course materials free of charge at the training.
The FACS teachers are free to incorporate all or only part of the Connections+PREP® curricula in their course offerings. In a focus group with nine teachers from across the state, most reported using the entire Relationships and Marriage curriculum, not only for the Marriage and Family Life course offered to juniors and seniors, but in other FACS courses as well. The Dating and Emotions curriculum, developed more recently, is also gaining in popularity. By 2007, more than 362 teachers nearly every FACS teacher in the state had been trained on one or both versions of the curriculum. Teachers have offered Connections+PREP® at 116 high schools across the state. By the end of 2007, more than 55,000 students had taken a course that included Connections+PREP® material.
Achieving sustained implementation. Three factors contributed to the acceptance of Connections+PREP® and its ongoing use in Oklahoma classrooms. First, FACS teachers and other leaders in the education system were open to presenting materials on relationships and marriage. Second, curriculum training was convenient and the professional materials, such as workbooks, were free. Third, extensive recruiting efforts were not needed to enroll students in the classes, because the curriculum was incorporated in a class that already had ongoing enrollments.
Teachers and staff did not need to be convinced of the value of marriage and relationship skills education. Leaders in the educational system in Oklahoma were already providing some instruction in marriage and family life, so the FACS system already had a track on which the OMI could build. Although the relationships and marriage curriculum was not well defined prior to the OMI, there was already a state-supported effort to provide information on the topic, and the new curriculum was seen as an enrichment of existing resources that aligned well with the states educational objectives.
Making it easy to participate in training and obtain curriculum materials also eased implementation in the high school system. The OMIs role in shaping the curriculum to align with both OMI and state educational standards and in providing convenient and accessible training minimized the burden on busy teachers. In Oklahoma, FACS teachers must use their own classroom budget to purchase curriculum materials and supplies. Providing free, professionally-developed curricula removed any financial barrier teachers might have otherwise encountered in adopting the curriculum.
Working through the public educational system eliminated the need for resources and extensive efforts to recruit youth and sustain their participation. Students typically sign up for the elective FACS classes because they have heard about them through word of mouth, because they need to fill up their schedule with some kind of elective, or, in the case of some special needs students, because it is written into their Individual Education Plans. Thus, the OMI did not need to expend resources or energy on helping the teachers attract students.