Multi-State "Best Friends" Program Addresses Risky Behaviors Among Teenage Girls
Between 1990 and 2003, the Best Friends Foundation, Washington, developed and implemented a youth development program for girls in grades 6 to 12 with the message that they should wait until marriage to begin sexual relations and abstain from drinking, smoking and using illegal drugs.
The program provided an eight-session curriculum taught by teachers and others that was given throughout the school year. Each participant chose a teacher as a mentor and also engaged in dance and fitness classes and community service projects.
For girls who had spent at least two years in the program and were moving on to high school, Best Friends staff began the "Diamond Girls" program. The Diamond Girls curriculum built on the Best Friends model and focused on career development and leadership activities.
- By the end of the grant period in 2003, school systems were operating Best Friends programs in 23 cities in 14 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands with 4,820 girls participating.
- Diamond Girls programs served 635 students in 16 sites in 2003.
- Best Friends held nine national training conferences in Washington for more than 900 representatives from school systems planning to implement the program.
- Each year, the Best Friends Foundation awarded scholarships to help girls pursue higher education. For example, from 20002003, Diamond Girls College Scholarships helped 51 students attend college or graduate school.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) awarded a total of $2,181,698 in five grants over the 13-year period between August 1990 and June 2003.
During the fourth grant period, RWJF staff decided to commission an external evaluation of the Best Friends program by Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton, N.J.-based evaluation firm, which was engaged in a nationwide evaluation of federally funded abstinence programs. However, the evaluators and Best Friends staff could not agree how to conduct the evaluation, and it was discontinued.
Without evidence from an external evaluation confirming the program's value, RWJF staff decided that Best Friends' staff would have difficulty continuing to replicate the program. RWJF staff provided a fifth and final three-year phase-out grant from 2000 to 2003 with declining funding each year.
In the mid-1980s, Elayne Bennett, the project director, was an educator who worked at the Child Development Center at Georgetown University, which evaluates and provides services to infants and young children.
Bennett saw that some of the mothers who brought their children in for testing were very young, including one who was 12 years old. Their children had mental, physical and emotional difficulties. The young mothers, while well intentioned, struggled to provide the care that their children needed in part because they had their own emotional difficulties, Bennett observed. In response, Bennett began to develop a project called Best Friends.
Best Friends was built upon the idea that girls can gain strength from each other in feeling good about themselves and making smart decisions. Bennett cited a report from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development Task Force stating a crucial need to help adolescents acquire durable self-esteem, reliable and relatively close human relationships, a sense of belonging in a valued group and a sense of usefulness in some way beyond the self.
Bennett also wanted the program to be fun and "cool" for young women. If it wasn't, she had no hope of changing adolescent behavior, she said. Best Friends was intended to give young girls the tools to make responsible decisions, including abstaining from sex at least until they graduated from high school.
The emphasis on abstaining from sexual involvement arises from the fact that less than half the girls who become parents before the age of 18 finish high school. Mothers, particularly single mothers, without a high school education experience the highest rates nationwide of long-term poverty and social dependency.
In the mid-1980s, Bennett wrote and tested a curriculum on 275 female students between the ages of 12 and 16 at two suburban high schools, two private schools and three inner-city schools. The high school girls made comments to Bennett such as "it is too late for me [to wait to have sex] work with my sister. She's 12 and receiving pressure [to have sex]." Based on that feedback, Bennett decided to focus first on sixth graders.
As part of that initial testing in 1987, she gave a four-session curriculum to an entire 6th grade class of girls at Amidon Elementary School. Bennett presented the sessions, which included a video entitled "How Can I Tell If I'm Really in Love?" that features students from a public high school talking about their experiences with love and romance. Using humor, the video makes girls question the "lines" that they will hear from boys and provides clever responses, according to Bennett.
The video was designed to spark discussion among the girls. "I was looking to show videos that made the girls want to talk," Bennett said, " but you have to have a guided format," in order for them to feel comfortable talking. The curriculum focused on friendship, love and dating, decision-making and self-respect and included as guest speakers women who had become successful in their lives.
In 1988, Bennett began a program at Jefferson Junior High School in Washington, for the graduating 6th graders from Amidon Elementary School to continue the program and keep the group of girls together. In all, Bennett presented the Best Friends program to 55 girls from Amidon or Jefferson in the 19881989 school year.
Bennett also created a mentor component to the program. In addition to the class meetings, she felt it was important for each girl to have a female mentor from her school who she could meet with once a week to talk with about her life and issues that she faced. The girls were asked to choose one of their teachers as a mentor.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided support to the Best Friends project from 1990 until 2003 through a series of five grants. The first grant (ID# 016792) to Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics funded a small, three-month pilot project designed to help Bennett develop the mentor program and continue the Best Friends program at the two original schools in Washington. Staff field-tested a program guide and started an aerobics program for the girls.
The second grant, also to Georgetown (ID# 017500), which ran from 1991 to 1993, supported Best Friends as the staff added more classes of girls in Amidon Elementary and Jefferson Junior High and expanded to other schools in the Washington area. Bennett continued to refine the curriculum based on feedback from the participants. For example, she added components about abstaining from drugs and alcohol. "I was hearing [from the girls] 'I didn't want to but I had too much to drink' or, 'he gave me a joint,'" Bennett said. "If a girl is smoking dope at 13 or 14 you can be sure that she is sexually active."
For girls who had spent at least two years in the program and were moving on to high school, Best Friends staff began the "Diamond Girls" program. The Diamond Girls curriculum built on the Best Friends model by reinforcing the messages about abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol, and about how to make good decisions. It also focused on career development and leadership activities by providing internships, jobs and opportunities to perform in a dance troupe or choir. Diamond Girls met twice a month with teacher/mentors.
Staff also began implementing training conferences for people managing the program and teaching the curriculum in schools such as teachers, mentors, aerobic instructors and community leaders.
In a separate initiative, between 1993 and 1997, RWJF provided support for one of the first Best Friends replication sites in Newark, N.J. RWJF gave a grant to the Freedom Foundation of New Jersey, to pilot the Best Friends program in all sixth-grade classes at two Newark schools (ID# 022405).
RWJF later provided two more grants to the Freedom Foundation to work with Newark Best Friends participating students who were entering ninth grade and joining the Diamond Girls program (ID# 030358 and 033000). Some 110 girls participated. See Grant Results.
Before the third RWJF grant, the Best Friends program moved out of Georgetown University and became a separate, nonprofit organization, Best Friends Foundation. The third RWJF grant, to the Best Friends Foundation (ID# 022022) from 1994 to 1996, supported their development into a national technical assistance center for replicating the program throughout the country. In this period, staff continued to add schools and classes in the Washington area, and expanded to Charlotte, N.C., Milwaukee, Newport News and Petersburg, Va., Orange, N.J., and Lawrence, Mass. The original schools, Amidon Elementary and Jefferson Junior High, served as demonstration sites for the schools replicating the project model.
Under the replication model, school systems entered into a licensing agreement with Best Friends Foundation and agreed to appoint a Best Friends program director for the school system, pay annual fees and purchase Best Friends curricular materials. The school system was responsible for organizing Best Friends activities, identifying educators to present the curriculum, mentors for participants, guest speakers and fitness instructors. In each school, principals designated a Best Friends coordinator to administer the program, including the mentor component.
The Best Friends Program Guide gave specific instructions about how to implement a Best Friends program in a school. The guide also included research data on adolescent at-risk behavior, a rationale for the efficacy of abstinence-based education, and eight curriculum units. The curriculum units were: friendship, love and dating, self-respect, decision-making, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, physical fitness and nutrition, and AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. Other support materials included the Best Friends Mentors Guide and Standards for Operating a Best Friends Program.
In total, the Best Friends program provided about 110 hours of guidance or activities to each girl and was designed to span over seven years (from the 5th or 6th grade to high school graduation). Each year each girl participated in group discussions based on the curriculum, presentations by role model guest speakers, mentoring sessions, aerobics and dance classes, trips to cultural events and community services activities. Best Friends girls also received the Best Friends Student Journal.
In the journal, each curriculum topic was introduced by a letter or news article designed to promote the girls' awareness of the topic from sources such as letters to TEEN magazine, young adult author Judy Blume and Ann Landers. The journal also had a section designed as a diary for each participant. Diamond Girls participants received the Diamond Girls Organizer, which also served as a diary.
At the end of each year, the girls were recognized in a ceremony that teachers, families and other community members attended. Girls performed dances and songs. Some Diamond Girl students won scholarship awards for college.
The fourth RWJF grant (ID# 024704) from 1996 to 2000 funded Best Friends to expand its replication efforts. Staff began to evaluate the quality of instruction at replication sites and monitor compliance with the program model. Among the problems they found were teacher turnover, student mobility and lack of financial support.
At the recommendation of Best Friends staff, some school systems engaged master instructors who moved from school to school to teach the curriculum. This was intended to maintain the quality of curriculum delivery and take some of the burden off Best Friends school coordinators. Best Friends Foundation staff terminated programs that did not follow the program model, for example, by not adhering to the curriculum or lacking commitment from the principal or teachers willing to serve as mentors.
The project director also added staff positions at the Best Friends Foundation to manage expansion, including a national program director and a curriculum and training director.
Because many girls become involved with sex, drugs and alcohol during the summer months, Best Friends staff also developed summer day camps for Washington participants in 1998 and 1999.
During the fourth grant period, RWJF staff decided to commission an evaluation of the Best Friends program (ID# 035807). RWJF hired Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton, N.J.-based evaluation firm, which was engaged in a nationwide evaluation of federally funded abstinence programs. However, the evaluators and Best Friends staff could not agree how to conduct the evaluation, and it was discontinued.
According to RWJF staff, Best Friends appeared to be a promising model. Without evidence from an external evaluation confirming the program's value, however, RWJF staff decided that Best Friends' staff would have difficulty continuing to replicate the program. RWJF staff provided a fifth and final three-year phase-out grant (ID# 029684) from 2000 to 2003 with declining funding each year.
In response to the discontinuation of the external evaluation, Best Friends staff hired Robert Lerner, Ph.D., of Lerner and Nagai Quantitative Consulting in Rockville, Md., who carried out an internal evaluation of the project. This was not funded by RWJF.
Throughout the 13-year period of RWJF funding, Best Friends Foundation received approximately $5.8 million funds from a number of individuals, foundations, government sources and corporations including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Avon Products Foundation, Neiman Marcus Foundation, American Standard Foundation, the Case Foundation, General and Mrs. Colin Powell, the Advisory Board Foundation, the Cawley Family Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, as well as funds from the District of Columbia.
"Best Friends has opened my eyes to see what is really out there. It has helped me to make wiser decisions. In Best Friends you learn how to be a lady and to stand up for yourself and never let anyone put you down or to talk you into anything you don't want to do. What does Best Friends mean to me? It means living up to a certain standard that Best Friends has shown me I can achieve, a standard I that I have made for myself." Maria, 7th grade, Jefferson Junior High (19941996).
According to reports submitted to RWJF, the following are the key results from RWJF funding.
- By the end of the grant period in 2003, school systems were operating Best Friends programs in 23 cities in 14 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands with 4,820 girls participating. Sites were geographically and demographically diverse and included Los Angeles, Amarillo, Texas, New Orleans, Prince George's County, Md., Clinton, Miss., and St. Croix, V.I. Sites included urban, suburban and rural areas. Over the course of the grant period, a few sites stopped offering the program because of failure to obtain funding, including Freeport, N.Y.; Flandreau, S.D.; Orange City, N.J.; Seaford, Del.; and Waco, Texas.
- Diamond Girls programs served 635 students in 16 sites in 2003. The bulk of participants were Best Friends girls.
- Best Friends held nine national training conferences in Washington for over 900 representatives from school systems planning to implement the program. At the two-day conferences, participants received program materials such as the program guide and individual training on the curriculum topics and program components. They also participated in a curriculum session with 3040 girls at one of the demonstration sites, and received training in such areas as mentoring, aerobics instruction and data keeping, as well as advice on legal issues and fund-raising techniques. During the 20022003 school year, staff piloted an on-site training model with schools in Pittsburgh and Amarillo to help them implement the program curriculum, including developing the skills to engage adolescents in discussions.
- The 1999 summer camp was conducted by the Best Friends staff for 60 participants in two three-week sessions at the Washington YMCA.
- Each year, the Best Friends Foundation awarded scholarships to help girls pursue higher education. For example, from 20002003, Diamond Girls College Scholarships helped 51 students attend college or graduate school.
The Best Friends program was featured in several articles and newscasts including USA Today, the Washington Post, Time magazine, National Public Radio, CNN, ABC's Nightline, FOX's the O'Reilly Factor and the Today Show. The project director wrote chapters about the program in several books and the Best Friends Foundation published a regular newsletter about the program.
- Without the philosophical support of the school principals and superintendents and regional financial assistance, programs like Best Friends are destined to fail. This is the main reason project staff had to close five sites in South Dakota, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Texas. (Project Director).
- It is critical to make evaluation an integral part of youth development programs. Project directors need to survey adolescents before and after an intervention so that they know about participants' behavior before starting the program and whether any changes took place as a result of the program. (Project Director)
- Try to incorporate as many components of an adolescent's world as possible in a youth development program. Without paying attention to peer and social interactions, it is unlikely that there will be any behavior change. (Project Director)
AFTER THE GRANT
In 2003, the Best Friends Foundation piloted a new outreach project called "Make Music Not Madness." The project addressed negative messages in today's music about violence, drugs and sexuality, especially in rap and hip hop. During the program, given at all-school assemblies, participants analyze the music and lyrics. Students also listen to music with positive messages and see performances by Best Friends participants.
Project staff designed the program as a vehicle for multiplying the impact of the Best Friends approach in schools on a limited budget. Project staff created a companion program for boys called Best Men, which is modeled after the Best Friends program. Best Men includes the same messages and curriculum as Best Friends and also topics aimed at young boys such as learning how to become a responsible man. As of November 2004, Best Friends programs were in 23 cities and 114 schools.
GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION
The Best Friends Youth Development Program for Teenage Girls
Georgetown University, Kennedy Institute of Ethics (Washington, DC)
- Expansion of Teen Counseling and Mentoring Program
Amount: $ 5,000
Dates: August 1990 to October 1990
- Expansion of a Counseling and Mentoring Program for Teen Girls
Amount: $ 90,224
Dates: March 1991 to June 1993
Best Friends Foundation (Washington, DC)
- Replicating a Health Program for Young Teen Girls Stressing Abstinence
Amount: $ 295,886
Dates: July 1994 to June 1996
- National Replication for a Health-risk Prevention Program for Girls
Amount: $ 1,190,588
Dates: July 1996 to June 2000
- Developing a Model Abstinence-based, Health-risk Prevention Program for Young Teen Girls
Amount: $ 600,000
Dates: July 2000 to June 2003
(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)
Bennett EG. "Teen Abstinence." In Building a Healthy Culture. Eberly D (ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Bennett EG. "Character Can Be Taught." In Great American Conservative Women. Bozell P (ed.). Herndon, Va.: The Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, 2002.
Bennett EG. "A Girl's Best Friend." In Giving Back: Using Your Influence to Create Social Change. Oster M and Hamel M (eds.). Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2003.
Heart to Heart newsletter. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, December 1994, Fall 1996, November 1995, Fall 1996, Fall 1997, Spring 1999, Fall 2000, two issues in 2001, two issues in 2002, and one issue in 2003.
Bennett, E and Guthrie Hingston A (eds.). Best Friends Program Guide (seventh edition; previous editions also published). Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2001.
Bennett E, Hingston A and Hayes AH. Best Friends Diamond Girls Organizer (second edition; previous edition also published). Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2001.
Bennett E and Guthrie Hingston A (eds.). Best Friends Student Journal (sixth edition; previous editions also published). Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2000.
Bennett E and Guthrie Hingston A (eds.). Best Friends Mentor Guide. (sixth edition; previous editions also published) Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2000.
Bennett E and Guthrie Hingston A (eds.). Best Friends News. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, Fall 1996.
Corbett MM and Williams LA (eds.). Best Friends for the Best Future: Fourteenth Annual Family and School Recognition Ceremony Program. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2001.
Hingston A (ed.). Best Friends Twelfth Annual Recognition Program. Washington: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Stagebill. 1999.
Hingston A (ed.). Best Friends Recognition Rally Program. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 1998.
Hingston A (ed.). Best Friends Tenth Anniversary Program. Washington: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Stagebill, Fall 1997.
Hingston A (ed.). Best Friends News: Special Tenth Anniversary Issue. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, Fall 1997.
Orfalea, Gregory and Bennett E. (eds.). Best Friends Express. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, Spring/Summer 1998.
A Parents Guide for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Use. Washington. The Lowe Family Foundation, 2000. Packaged with Best Friends name and logo on cover.
"Best Friends for The Best Future: Scholarship Fund." Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2000.
Audio-Visuals and Computer Software
Best Friends Foundation 14th Annual Recognition Ceremony, 40-minute videotape of excerpts of footage from the program's fourteenth annual National Family and School Recognition Ceremony at the Kennedy Center on June 4, 2001. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2001.
Best Friends Foundation NBC Today Show and Promotional Video 2001, a 20-minute videotape that excerpts Best Friends, Best Men and Diamond Girls curriculum sessions and activities. Washington: Best Friends Foundation: 2001.
Best Friends Tenth Anniversary Information Video. Five-minute videotape shown in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the program's tenth anniversary and national recognition ceremony and celebration, April 6, 1997. Washington: Best Friends Foundation.
Best Friends Tenth Anniversary Highlights. 15-minute videotape of excerpts of video footage from CBS Sunday Morning, GOP-TV and in-house cameras of the program's tenth anniversary and national recognition ceremony at the Kennedy Center on April 6, 1997. Washington: Best Friends Foundation.
Recognition Rally Highlights. Ten-minute videotape of excerpts of videotaped footage from the program's 11th national recognition program held at DAR Constitution Hall, Washington. on June 6, 1998. Washington: Best Friends Foundation.
Step by Step Dance Instructional Video. Teacher instruction for curriculum fitness and recognition ceremony component. Washington: Best Friends Foundation.
Diamond Girls Pre-Survey, Best Friends Foundation, fielded June 2003, October and June 2002, October and June 2001, October 2000.
Best Friends Post-Survey, Best Friends Foundation, fielded June 2003, October and June 2002, October and June 2001 and October 2000.
World Wide Web Sites
www.bestfriendsfoundation.org. The Best Friend Foundation's Web site provides information on the Best Friends Foundation's programs. Washington: Best Friends Foundation, 2000.
"Best Friends Foundation National Training Conference." November 1920, 2002. Washington. Attended by 200 school principals and educators from each of the foundation's 23 replication sites. Seven presentations and 10 workshops.
"Best Friends National Training Conference," November 30December 1, 2000. Washington. Attended by 125 educators representing 23 school districts.
"National Best Friends Training Conference," May 1920, 1999. Washington. Attended by 100 educators representing 26 school districts.
"National Best Friends Training Conference." December 34 1998. Washington. Attended by 100 educators representing 26 school districts.
"National Best Friends Training Conference." June 78, 1998. Washington. Attended by 130 educators representing 26 school districts.
"National Best Friends Training Conference." November 1314, 1997. Washington. Attended by more than 150 educators representing 22 school districts.
"National Best Friends Training Conference," November 2223, 1996, Washington. Attended by more than 100 educators representing school districts.
Report prepared by: Susan G. Parker
Reviewed by: Janet Heroux
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: Terrance Keenan
Program Officer: James Knickman
Program Officer: Nancy Barrand
Program Officer: Nancy Fishman