Kearns aims to reverse troubling trends affecting its teens

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mercedes Rodriguez, left, Health Education Coordinator with the prevention coalition in Kearns, speaks with local residents Rubi Castillo, Marisol Ojeda and Esther Estrada, from center left, about programs to help reduce vaping and alcohol use among youth during a health fair at the Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from Solutions Journalism Network, The Salt Lake Tribune is examining how Kearns is trying to improve the lives of its children. Part 1 of this three-part series introduces us to the data-driven approach of the Kearns Community Coalition. Part 2 explored the community emphasis on coaching and supporting parents. Part 3 looked at strengthening teens through coping skills and mentoring.

Kearns • As adults wander to and from their workouts at the Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center on a day in early March, Mercedes Rodriguez stands at a health fair booth, talking to folks about how to talk to their kids.

She passes out decks of “conversation cards” with questions like “What books did you like when you were my age?” and “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?”

It’s part of an extraordinary effort by dozens of government agencies and community leaders to help this working-class township reverse a troubling trend of distressing statistics.

Compared to the state and Salt Lake County, more teens in Kearns report drinking alcohol and vaping because of inadequate family bonding and low attachment to their neighborhoods and schools. And a growing proportion struggles with feeling sad and hopeless.

“We’re trying to help parents to understand some of the things they can do to strengthen their relationships [with their children] to avoid underage drinking,” Rodriguez, the Kearns program coordinator, tells one mother.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mercedes Rodriguez, center, health education coordinator with the Kearns Community Coalition in Kearns, speaks with local residents about programs to help reduce vaping and alcohol use among youth during a health fair at the Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Using a combination of grants, federal and county funds, Salt Lake County and its partners created the Evidence2Success Kearns Community Coalition, which has spent $809,000 from 2015 through last year digging into student data, deciding priorities and finding and implementing evidence-based solutions for its community.

The coalition, which counts more than 30 people representing schools, police, businesses and nonprofits, hopes to help adults improve their parenting skills, help teens understand the harmful effects of substance use, and increase opportunities to connect youths to their schools and communities. During the pandemic shutdown, the coalition is still meeting through Zoom, planning a social media campaign and passing out conversation cards at one of its food banks.

“That’s a remarkable amount of money for a community to get. They’ve done a really good job of finding resources for what needs to be done,” says Craig PoVey, prevention administrator for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. He notes that every dollar spent on prevention saves money down the road in problems like incarceration and lost wages.

“If we had enough resources to saturate our state with evidence-based prevention programs," he says, “you’d see a decrease in crime, violence, unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse, overdoses, suicide ideation, depression.”

The Kearns efforts are wide ranging, from implementing the state’s ParentsEmpowered campaign to preventing underage drinking with those conversation cards, along with large signs at the neighborhood liquor store and recreation centers. The funds also helped Kearns High School journalism students start a community newspaper and paid for teens to paint a mural inside a bridge on the nearby train tracks to cut down on graffiti.

The project also focuses on targeted interventions: a five-week parenting class called Guiding Good Choices, and six-week group counseling sessions for teens at risk of depression and suicide called ME Time. (More about those two programs later in the series.)

“My goal and the goal of Evidence2Success is to make kids’ lives as healthy as possible,” says Joshua Nielsen, one of the leaders of the coalition. “Healthy kids means more kids graduating, staying in the community and giving back. If you’re not healthy, you’re not going to be a contributor to society.”

Certainly, vaping, teen drinking and a lack of family communication aren’t unique to Kearns. The 2019 statewide Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey given to sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th graders every other year shows that almost 40% of 12th graders in Salt Lake County had ever tried alcohol or vaping. And six in 10 of all Utah students report being moderately depressed, meaning they reported feeling they were a failure or life wasn’t worth living or felt sad or depressed most days, reflecting Utah’s status as having one of the highest youth suicide rates in the country.

“This is a problem everywhere,” says Chief Brian Lohrke, head of the Unified Police Department’s Kearns precinct, who has worked in Millcreek, Riverton and Herriman and is on the Kearns coalition. “But,” he acknowledges, “Kearns does have a need for the resources.”

‘A city of doers’

A railroad line that runs behind a white-clad building near 5100 West and 5000 South is one of the few reminders of Kearns’ proud history as a training base for the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.

Now a day care center, the building was once a train station where at least 100,000 enlisted men would arrive and depart from Camp Kearns from 1942 to 1946, walking under a banner emblazoned with the words: “Thru this gate pass the best damn soldiers in the world.”

Now, Kearns Metro Township is home to roughly 37,000 people who are much more diverse than the rest of the county and state. Of the 14 schools in Kearns, all but three have a majority-minority student population, in which white students are the minority, according to state school data.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Charles Henderson, a leader of the Kearns Community Coalition, grew up in Kearns, moved away for work and returned.

“There’s no better place for me to be than back in Kearns,” he says. “I like the diversity. It’s a mix of white collar and blue collar. There’s a lot of pride.”

While the community is named for one of the richest men of his time — mining magnate U.S. Sen. Thomas Kearns (a former owner of The Salt Lake Tribune) — the township is one of the poorest areas in the county. When Salt Lake County applied for the Annie E. Casey grant, Kearns had one of the state’s highest rates of child poverty in Utah. New school data shows from half to 88% of the students at Kearns schools qualify for free or reduced school lunch, and all but two schools are falling short of academic standards.

In early March, Kearns High School offered free tuxedo and dress rentals for prom. It also runs a food pantry, stocked with once-a-week deliveries from the Utah Food Bank and donations from faculty and students. “Our kids are hungry,” says principal Maile Loo.

Kearns Junior High also runs a food bank and clothing closet for its students and their families, along with dental care through Smart Smiles. Before the coronavirus shut it down, the University of Utah parked its Wellness Bus once a week in Kearns to screen for chronic diseases and provide nutrition education. And Kearns is one of nine communities targeted by United Way of Salt Lake with help to improve kindergarten readiness, reading and math scores, high school graduation and other outcomes.

Anecdotally, Kearns kids may have less supervision — leading to the higher risk of drug and alcohol use — because their parents are working more than one job. Principal Loo says she frequently advises students, who say they need to drop out to work to help their families, to stay in school. And Chief Lohrke says he sees kids who don’t have anything to do after school come to hang out next to his precinct at the convenience store — one covered in advertisements for beer.

“I’ve seen the kids that are milling around after school [because] when they get home, there’s not a parent figure available to them,” Lohrke says. “A lot of these kids don’t want to get into bad stuff. They’re peer-pressured into it.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Josh Nielsen, a pastor at Hope Unlimited Community Church, serves hundreds of families through the church's own Hope Unlimited Utah Food Bank.

Josh Nielsen, a pastor at Hope Unlimited Community Church, says parental education could be a factor, too: About 13% of Kearns residents have an undergraduate degree, compared to 31% in the county, according to county data.

“Kids are unsupervised. [Parents] don’t have the energy or the tools to have conversations [about drugs and alcohol] with their kids,” he says. “Kearns is a city of doers. We aren’t afraid to work.” But because families are working several jobs to afford their homes, it “takes away time from kids. That’s where family management is lacking.”

A data-driven approach

Salt Lake County, as the fiscal agent for the coalition, has marshaled dozens of partners and $809,000 in grants and matching funds to zero in on Kearns.

Data drove the county to focus on the township, and data determined what goals the coalition set and what programs it funds.

Then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams picked Kearns after a committee studied the demographics, economic indicators, and health and education outcomes of eight communities. “The Future We Choose in Kearns” was launched in 2015 to boost economic development, health outcomes and opportunities for youths. The Kearns Metro Township has taken on economic development.

The last two goals turned into the Kearns Community Coalition, boosted by major grants. In 2015, the Annie E. Casey Foundation chose Kearns as one of four sites nationwide to implement its Evidence2Success framework, giving $150,000 in matching funds to help the county work with the Kearns community to analyze local youth data, set priorities and pay for programs with proven track records of preventing or reducing negative behaviors. The coalition then earned a $125,000-a-year federal Drug-Free Communities grant through 2022, with a chance to extend it another five years, to work on environmental changes like adding more ParentsEmpowered marketing and community events to build neighborhood attachment.

Caroline Moreno, manager of Salt Lake County’s prevention bureau, which coordinates the coalition, says it took 18 months to work through four of the required five-phase “change process,” which included finding community leaders, learning about prevention science, writing a vision statement, organizing work groups, reviewing data, identifying risk and protective factors, understanding what resources already exist and what gaps need to be filled.

“If you look at the research around community change, it’s saying you’ve got to engage the community from the grassroots. You’ve got to go long term,” says Moreno. “This is generational change we’re talking about. It’s not overnight. You’ve got to go deep.”

The coalition analyzed Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) data, which is publicly available on the state and county level, but is also available by community level for school administrators and others who work in prevention. Students are asked about their alcohol and drug use, symptoms of depression and a series of questions that determines their risk or protective factors — the reasons they might be more or less likely to use drugs, drop out of school, become pregnant as a teenager, become depressed or commit violence, according to the University of Washington, which developed the Risk and Protective Factor Model of Prevention used in Utah.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

In 2015, nearly half of all Kearns students surveyed indicated a lack of family management, meaning parents don’t have clear rules, know where they are and who they are with, or ask if they got their homework done — compared to 28% of the state. About a third reported feeling sad and hopeless, compared to 23% of the state. Nearly half of all Kearns students reported low neighborhood attachment — meaning they were less likely to report liking their neighborhood or thinking they would miss it if they moved.

Prevention work requires homing in on those risk factors to reduce the problem behaviors the coalition is targeting: Kearns’ 10th graders were more than twice as likely as their state peers to have used alcohol in the past month and eighth graders were more than twice as likely to have vaped.

“For me, the bottom line is probably access to opportunities,” says Henderson. “I want to see folks, whether it be our youth, our seniors or just residents here in Kearns, have the ability to take advantage of every opportunity that’s out there.”

Building community pride

The coalition can’t say with certainty why teens in Kearns aren’t as attached to their neighborhoods as others say they are. But some members have two theories: lack of investment and stereotypes about Kearns fueled by media coverage they say only mentions Kearns in the context of crime.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Kearns High School football players rush onto the field as Kearns hosts Lone Peak on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.

Kearns High senior Tony Peralta says adults coming to volunteer at Kearns High have confessed they were scared to visit. Students from other schools have pitied him when he says where he’s from. When he was a freshman and sophomore, he, too, derided his school as a “ghetto” and wanted to escape the label by transferring.

But then he ran for student government, and now sees a community full of potential and strengths. He is proud of the school’s diversity — more than half the school is Latino, black, Polynesian or Asian — and helps showcase those backgrounds as the cultural affairs vice president.

“It gives our school a chance to show what representation is, having so many people of color and white students united as a school and working towards that greater goal of being an amazing school,” says Peralta, who earned a scholarship to attend the University of Utah and will be the first person in his family to go to college. “Our school’s very beautiful and it has a very big chance of being more, as long as people put effort into it.”

Senior Bradley Gardner wonders if some students drink and vape because they are living up to the stereotype about Kearns. As a football player and student body officer, he says he was on a mission to prove the stereotype wrong, by being respectful of other teams and helping clean up after games, for example. But he’s proud of school and how the community rallies together, like when a former football player broke his neck while jumping on a trampoline.

“I honestly wouldn’t switch schools even if somebody paid me,” says Gardner. He’s headed to the U. in the fall on a scholarship and wants to return to Kearns to teach and coach football. “We have a lot of people that genuinely want to learn and want to be at school.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Andrea Giovannini (Italy) in the Men's 5000m at the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Kearns was once a worldwide darling when speedskaters shattered eight of 10 world records at its Olympic Oval during the 2002 Winter Games. And U.S. Speedskating is headquartered at the oval’s Fastest Ice on Earth, where short- and long-track skaters train and often compete.

But the oval was the last major capital investment made in the township, and neighboring cities have annexed so much of Kearns that its original size has shrunk by 70%.

“A lot of the profitable pieces of Kearns have been poached by other cities because they want the tax base,” Nielsen says. “It looks like you’re walking around in the 1960s. There’s not a lot of curb appeal in Kearns.”

He and others believe the lack of investment and the shrinking borders reduced involvement and pride in the community. Prevention experts link such low neighborhood attachment to teen substance abuse, delinquency and violence.

But Kearns is undergoing a face-lift. After passing a construction bond in 2017, Granite School District is rebuilding or remodeling West Kearns, Arcadia and South Kearns elementaries, and Kearns Junior High. Habitat for Humanity chose Kearns to build its first energy-efficient and affordable homes called Field of Dreams. Kearns is where Utah Community Action built its first hub, to combine many of the services it offers low-income families (preschool, assistance with utility bills and affordable housing) at the Ray and Tye Noorda Utah Community Center.

And slated to open in the fall is a new library on 5400 South and 4200 West — the largest in the Salt Lake County library system, at about 36,000 square feet. The exterior’s peaks and dips are reminiscent of a mountain range. Inside, it will reflect the changing role of libraries as what Kearns library manager Trish Hull calls a “library of things,” complete with a sound studio with equipment to record podcasts or music; a “create space” with a 3D printer, sewing machines and virtual reality equipment, along with lots of small meeting rooms, a portable stage and a demonstration kitchen.

Hull knows the new library will be a magnet for kids. The former 50-year-old Kearns library, closed for more than a year, drew up to 100 elementary and junior high students after school each school day, Hull says. As she develops programs for the new space, Hull says youths — and ways to boost their opportunities so they avoid risky behaviors — are top of mind.

Hull is on the Kearns Community Coalition and is using what’s called the social development strategy that was crafted by Communities That Care. The strategy boils down to providing youths positive social opportunities, teaching them skills to succeed and recognizing their effort and achievement. That promotes bonding, which proponents say will motivate them to live up to healthy standards.

“The library is going to hopefully be that place where they come and be involved in something. They can learn a new skill. We’re going to say, ‘Hey, we have all this cool stuff. Instead of hanging out with your buddies and getting in trouble, come do all this cool stuff,’” Hull says. “Sometimes these kids just don’t have exposure to what’s out there. They get tied into the small, narrow path. Maybe the library can give the opportunity to open more doors.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Legacy Winter Fest draws visitors outside of the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns from Feb. 14-16, 2020 during the world single distances speed skating championships with food trucks, live music, a beer garden, vendors, axe throwing, mechanical bull, and family friendly activities for all. Admission and activities to the outdoor festival are free.

The oval is also doing more to draw in locals, with activities like Legacy Winter Fest and giving free skating lessons to Kearns students. The coalition will continue to watch SHARP data to see if the efforts are paying off, and adjust goals accordingly. SHARP data in 2017 shows the percentage of Kearns students who don’t care about their neighborhood is inching down (by 2 percentage points) and close to the coalition’s 2021 goal. However, experts like Moreno say no one can point to the coalition’s efforts and say they are what is driving the change in SHARP numbers. “It’s great the community numbers are getting better," she says. “We keep chugging away.”

While it’s too soon to say if the interventions are working, the parenting classes and teen counseling sessions piloted at Kearns are already being implemented in other schools in Salt Lake County, as organizers gather local evidence.

Coalition members like Nielsen see the construction cranes and dump trucks as signs of success.

“If you have the nicest library, if you have nice schools, it’s a steppingstone for people to come use those facilities,” he says. “You walk around Kearns and it makes you proud.”

Heather May is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. Part 2 of this three-part series describes how programs are helping parents connect with their kids. Part 3 shows how coping skills and mentoring give students hope.