PUBLISHED: 3:58 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Yaakoos students teach children about dangers of underage drinking

Courtesy photo
  Ami McRae, left, and Amber Beasley, right, teaching PYPM to Jan Faure's first grade class at Riverbend Elementary.
"The messages our neurons receive during the first 21 years of life create the brain and body we must use for the rest of our lives," Yaakoosge Daakahidi students Twyla Eyre and Kendra Bolin told an audience of over 100 people at a recent School Board meeting. "Alcohol messes with the neurotransmitters, which blocks development."

Six students at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School know this and a whole lot more about the brain and alcohol. They have also learned a lot about how to teach elementary students and have been doing exactly this twice a week for 11 weeks as part of their Protecting You/Protecting Me class at Yaakoos.

Last summer, Yaakoos high school teacher Nikki Richert spent three days in Texas learning how to run the first teen-taught PYPM class in Alaska. PYPM is an elementary curriculum for grades one through five, whose goal is to prevent the injury and death of youth from underage drinking and from riding with drivers who are impaired.

PYPM has been given the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's highest designation-that of Model Program.

Richert's students spent November and December learning about the brain and alcohol's impact on it, childhood development, different learning styles, and classroom management.

"Students were surprised to find out that the part of the brain responsible for thinking and self-control (prefrontal cortex) is very vulnerable between the ages of 12 and 18 and is not fully developed until about age 25," said Richert.

In January partners were assigned a classroom at Harborview Elementary, and began learning the first of eight lessons for the grade they were going to teach. For the next four weeks, each pair taught two different lessons a week to their class at Harborview. "I thought it was really cool when we could see the kids understood the messages we taught them," said Yaakoos student Amber Beasley.

"Especially with the lesson on protecting their brain. Kids started drawing pictures of people wearing seatbelts, wearing helmets, and not smoking."

In February, the Yaakoos students began teaching at Glacier Valley, Riverbend, and Auke Bay, again learning and teaching two different lessons each week. Yaakoos student Mary Nordgren said, "I really liked working with the younger kids at Glacier Valley because we really connected with them. They loved us."

Yaakoos collaborated with the Juneau chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in order to bring about the PYPM program. NCADD was able to offer some funding and assistance due to a grant from the Alaska Highway Safety Office. "We were very excited to be able to work with Yaakoos on this project because we know that Youth-Led PYPM not only has a great impact on the elementary students but also on the high school students teaching it," said Jessica Paris, PYPM state coordinator for NCADD.

"In a national study on PYPM, the youth instructors showed significant decrease in their own alcohol use, binge drinking, and driving after drinking, as well as improving other important life skills. It's a win-win situation for all students involved."

While some people may wonder if elementary school is too young to start talking about underage drinking and riding with impaired drivers, the Juneau Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that about 30 percent of our youth have their first drink other than a few sips at age 12 or younger.

The YRBS also shows that about 30 percent of Juneau 13-year-olds have ridden at least once in a vehicle with someone who had been drinking.

"If even one of the students we've taught grows up and doesn't use drugs or alcohol, I know we've completed our mission," said Yaakoos student Ami McRae.