Student leaders ‘making way for change’ in tobacco conversation

Jeffco schools participate in UpRISE program to stop youth substance use


On a professional development day in September, Wheat Ridge High School teachers, administrators and staff sat down for a student presentation on how to better connect with students. The tactics offered, said English teacher Tim Slater, were suggestions that some staff members had heard at previous points throughout their careers.

But the suggestion that these tactics could reduce youth tobacco use offered a new perspective.

“It’s been very eye-opening to me,” Slater said. “As a staff member, it’s really easy to feel like you’re not making an impact,” but the presentation made him realize that “every day, I have thousands of small interactions with students that could impact this,” he said.

Students in Wheat Ridge High’s student leadership class, Student Senate, have faced no small task this year as they’ve worked through the curriculum for UpRISE. The program is funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, organizing youth coalitions across the state to address substance use among young people.

Through a partnership with Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH), three UpRISE coalitions have been created in the county so far, in Jefferson High School, Lakewood High School and Wheat Ridge High School.

The program seeks to address a problem in Colorado that continues to gain attention nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 13 Americans currently under 18 will lose their lives early from a smoking-related illness.

Jeffco’s UpRISE coalitions take different forms in each school, some meeting during class, some during lunch and some outside of school hours. But they all have the same goal: researching causes of tobacco use, developing a potential plan to mitigate use and present those plans to school or local leaders, said Allyson Howe. Howe is the youth engagement specialist with JCPH.

“This is a huge lift for our student leaders,” she said. “We are working together as adults and young people, and we will continue to work.”

For the Senate students, that has meant collaborating with Slater, the class’s teacher, to research potential causes and survey the student body about what might combat substance use.

Through the surveys they ran, as well as data from districtwide surveys like Make Your Voice Heard, the students came to three conclusions, sophomore Maddie Bush said.

Stress was a major cause for tobacco use among Wheat Ridge students; students felt the ability to talk to a trusted teacher would mitigate that stress; and many students felt they did not have a teacher like that in their lives.

“There’s been times I’ve been very alone, and when there has been a teacher that’s approached me, that’s been helpful for me,” sophomore Ciriah Torrez said. “We wanted to suggest ways teachers could implement that.”

The findings prompted the students to present to staff on a professional development day. After the presentation, teachers and students met in small groups to discuss potential strategies to engage students, sophomore Sunny Collins said.

During the meeting, Collins suggested teachers might wait to jump into curriculum until the second day of the semester, taking the first day to get to know students, and many staff members agreed.

“Even though we’re students, we can make a big change, and it’s different than if it came from adults,” she said.

With the next semester of the school year just ahead, staff members have told Slater they plan to put some of these tactics into action, as does Slater himself, he said.

As that time comes, what the students look forward to most is “continuing to see the results firsthand,” sophomore Aaliyah Arellano said, and “making way for change,” said sophomore Emily Bishop.

And the Student Senate also has work to do as it plans for its next step. While the students are not yet sure what that looks like, junior Kate Peterson said they plan to follow up with teachers because “you could tell they listened and you could tell they wanted to fix it.”

The class will also continue to focus on identifying causes of tobacco use among students.

“Our work felt really important, because it was important enough for staff to take time out of their day and listen,” junior Sophia Stines said. “When you do have a voice, it’s really empowering.”


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