Edward Smith, director of evaluation research for the Penn State Prevention Research Center, and Linda Caldwell, professor of recreation and park management, launched the pilot version of HealthWise in 2002, in cooperation with colleagues from Penn State and two South African
universities. The curriculum was implemented in four schools within the Western Cape school district in Mitchell's Plain, an impoverished region formerly under apartheid rule where 1 in 5 people is HIV-positive. After a positive initial reaction from teachers and students, the program is being revised and expanded under a five-year, $2.25 million grant from the
National Institute of Drug Awareness (NIDA).
Delivered to eighth and ninth graders, the HealthWise curriculum centers on a positive use of leisure time. Its lessons, such as "Managing Anxiety" and "Exploring Free Time," stress student interaction through small group work, an innovative approach to education in a region still dominated by the traditional lecture model. Some 2,300 students are currently enrolled, and the program is projected to have reached 8,000 kids by 2008.
One key change instituted as a result of the pilot program is the employment of youth development specialists. "These officers serve as a liaison between the school environment and the community," Smith says, advertising alternative recreational activities for kids as well as accompanying them to health clinics.
Anticipating the program's continued growth, researchers have incorporated its lessons into the Western Cape district's established Life Orientation curriculum so that it can be easily adopted by other districts and eventually across the entire province. Although HealthWise continues to undergo revisions, Smith and Caldwell are hopeful about its eventual impact. Says Smith, "We're trying to be a positive influence on school districts in helping kids become more cognizant of their environment and do things that are better for them."