For years, New Jersey's youth workers found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively reach out to at-risk and troubled teens. Youth were not utilizing services that were available within community settings, many out of fear of punishment or criticisms from peers. Often, school personnel did not even bother to refer their students to social services because of the cumbersome and costly process. Although community services were being severely underutilized, trends indicated that youth were much more likely to take advantage of services that were available within school settings.
Based on these indications, New Jersey's Department of Human Services collaborated with several other state agencies to develop the School Based Youth Services Program (SBYSP). Implemented in 1988, SBYSP eliminates youth's fear of stigmatization by integrating social services into the school setting. SBYSP was designed with the aims of helping New Jersey's youth graduate from high school, develop solid employment skills, and stay mentally and physically healthy and drug free by providing comprehensive and culturally sensitive services in centers located in or near schools. Teens actually frequent these services because the centers are so easy to access. Eligibility requirements were eliminated, and the services are free to all 13 to 19 year olds.
SBYSP sites are located in 24 public high schools and five vocational-technical schools throughout New Jersey. In the fall of 1991, three school districts were planning on expanding the program to incorporate seven sites at elementary and middle schools. Each center provides five core services: primary and preventive health care, mental health resources, employment counseling, substance-abuse counseling, and tutorial help. Many sites also offer additional services that meet specific local needs, including transportation, day care, family planning, tutoring, and parenting classes. Recreation activities are provided as an informal method of engaging students and creating a supportive, trusting environment. Each site has a local advisory committee comprised of school personnel, community representatives, and parents. The program has a significant impact on the local educational, mental health, employment, and health systems, linking them together and making them work to best meet the teen community's needs.
State officials agreed from the outset to impose few restrictions on the local programs. Although funding comes primarily from the state, each community is able to determine the most effective operating model due to the bottom-up design of the program. The minimal requirements include an agreement between community agencies and local school districts, the support of the local teachers' union, and establishment of a local advisory committee. Turnover among the site directors is minimal, indicating that the program attracts staffers who are truly committed to their profession.
In Fiscal Year 1989, the program served 19,000 teens, representing one out of every three teens in the schools districts served by the program, with half of the serviced youth considered at high risk of dropping out. Feedback from the centers' staff, the parents, and the teens themselves has been consistently positive. Iowa and Kentucky have already replicated the New Jersey model, and many other jurisdictions have expressed strong interest. New Jersey would like to apply the model to other social service programs so that they too can take advantage of collaboration efforts among various public services. SBYSP brings together government agencies which mutually benefit from working to achieve a common goal--to educate and help develop physically and mentally healthy teenagers who are able to fully participate in today's society.