CASPER, Wyo. -- A handful of local educators and a national bestselling author believe research at Casper schools will change the course of education in America, with Wyoming leading the way.
“The Casper Project” begins at the start of the school year. Researchers will examine how students in nine Title I schools in the Natrona County School District respond to a program that teaches families to teach their children how to succeed.
The project uses Judy Zerafa’s “Seven Keys to Success Program.” The author recently followed her 1982 bestseller “Go For It!” with “Go For It! Family Program.”
Her first book about how students can achieve a fulfilling life was just the tip of the iceberg, she said. Since then, she started the seven keys program and founded the non profit Go For It! Institute in Denver.
But it’s the latest addition to her life’s work that caught the interest of University of Wyoming educational researchers. Zerafa’s latest book not only publishes the seven keys for the first time in book form, it spotlights the role of families in education.
“There are lots of behavioral programs out there that schools are trying, but this one involves parents,” said Heather Duncan, UW Educational Leadership Program coordinator. “It’s so difficult to involve parents. I thought, ‘This is going to be an interesting one.’”
Parents and all other family members will attend a monthly hour of training, which will include a free dinner and child care for their young children, according to Zerafa.
America once ranked among the top industrialized nations when it came to education, but it sank to the bottom three, Zerafa said, citing various education studies. The top countries — Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Canada — are the ones where families truly share responsibility for education. They teach their children life skills, values and behavioral boundaries, she said.
“Those schools … don’t provide anything except academic knowledge and they do it seven hours a day,” Zerafa said. “Our mindset in this county is, and it’s proven through many, many studies, we take our 4-year-old children to our public schools and say ‘OK, here they are, everybody. We’re going to pick them up in 13 years and by golly, you’d better do a good job.’”
Natrona County is no exception to what Zerafa believes plagues schools across the county.
“The schools are having to provide basic life skills,” Zerafa said. “If you can find a way to connect the parents, we can be the leader in this country. Casper can light the candle that illuminates the way.”
The idea that adults must know how to be successful in order to teach children led Zerafa to interview 35 Horatio Alger Award winners to learn what common attributes they share.
All answered with some combination of that would become her “Seven Keys to Success Life Program.”
A positive attitude, belief in oneself, positive habits, wise choices, setting and achieving goals, using creative imagination and persistence sounds like a list of advice everyone hears from teachers, relatives and professional motivators. But the difference, Zerafa said, is her program tells people how to do those seven things, step by step.
“I’ve seen it work,” Cottonwood Elementary School Principal Mari Stoll said. She learned about the program from St. Anthony Tri-Parish School and adopted it for her school. The Boys & Girls Club in Casper also uses the program.
Discipline referrals dropped and Stoll believes the program is part of the reason for rising math and reading scores at Cottonwood.
Her enthusiasm led to the meeting at which UW researchers took on the project. Because she championed the program, The Casper Project is dedicated to Stoll. Zerafa planned for her institute to pay for the research, but UW offered to donate the study “for the good of mankind,” UW’s Duncan said she told them. UW asked for funding for travel expenses but is donating what would otherwise be several hundred thousands of dollars, Zerafa said.
The Casper Project seeks sponsors for remaining research expenses and implementing the program. Those interested may call Zerafa at 303-721-8882.
UW researchers will track how the program affects student behavior from grade to grade over five years, according to Duncan. The study could suggest, though not determine, a connection to academic achievement, as many variables affect achievement, she added.
“I think we really want to see parents and the community involved. We think it’s a really exciting initiative,” Duncan said.
Mark Mathern, NCSD associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said the district will work with UW and the Go For It! Institute for the project.
If the study suggests the program works, he’ll want it in more schools.
“The jury is still out because the evidence is not yet available,” Mathern said. “I think that’s part of why there’s value in doing the research.”
Zerafa’s confidence in the program is obvious to anyone who meets her. Once a single mother working two jobs, she said she’s sharing what she and her children learned to succeed. She’s seen it change others’ lives. She predicts that as more children learn self-confidence through the program, more will succeed and fewer will turn to bullying, crime and substance abuse.
The program will touch the lives of 7,000 people in the Casper area community of about 70,000, according to Zerafa.
The Casper Project is aptly named, because it’s about the whole community, she added.
“Historically, social research proves that when you change 10 percent of any society, you change the entire culture,” she said.