A boy playing basketball is caught midair, his blurry arm ready to dunk. A small girl stands in her grassless yard, smiling up at the camera. They’re just snapshots from some kids’ lives. But it’s not the photos that matter that much—it’s the lives they reflect.

Sixth-graders took these pictures as part of a research program begun by Robert Cairns, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Developmental Sciences (CDS), and Beverley Cairns, director of the social development research unit at CDS. The goal is to pull back into the system teenagers who are at risk for substance abuse, aggression, or dropping out of school. The program adds two additional classes into the normal school day—photography and music. The children learn the basics of photography, then document their lives using disposable cameras. In music class, they learn about jazz, learn to play keyboards, and perform for the community.

But the details of the activities aren’t that important. The photos and music are new tasks the kids can master quickly—a way to get them excited about learning. The children have tangible results they can be proud of, and they gain respect from teachers, parents, and friends. The goal is to help pull these kids back into the circle of school—and society.

The Cairns study this group of 385 sixth graders in five schools in three of the poorest counties in Alabama. Then they compare them with a control group in matched schools. They began the program in Alabama because Beverley Cairns had developed ties there while doing research on youth violence in Birmingham. Plus, these counties were very poor, and very rural. “We took a challenging area and hoped to make a difference there,” she says.

The Cairns designed the program based on data from their study that followed 695 children in different parts of the country, starting in either fourth or seventh grade. From 1981 to 1997, their team interviewed the children each year, as well as their parents, teachers, and friends. In their book about the study, Lifelines and Risks, (Cambridge University Press, 1994) the Cairns report that aggression in school, teen parenthood, and dropping out of school didn’t occur as isolated incidents, but were part of a package of problems. Children who showed signs of these multiple problems, or “correlated constraints,” seemed to subscribe to a different set of values. For example, among some teen groups, dropping out, rather than graduating, was the expected norm.

Robert Cairns talks about these children with a striking mix of realism and idealism. He’ll tell you, “We can predict pretty reliably, from who children’s friends are, whether or not they’re going to drop out of school by the end of the eleventh grade.” Often children who do poorly in school or misbehave get disconnected from school early on, he says. Research from Sheppard Kellam, a collaborator from Johns Hopkins University, shows that by the end of the first grade, children often get segregated into those who do well and those who don’t. And when children are held back a grade, they’re often grouped with other kids who’ve been held back, forming a social group that helps reinforce misbehavior, Robert says.

But he is quick to add that these patterns aren’t set in stone. Sometimes, kids succeed despite their early history. “These are real lives here,” he says. “You can’t just look at a few demographic variables and write these kids off.” Of the children identified as at risk for dropping out, getting arrested for violence, or becoming a teenage parent, many ended up as predicted. But some did not.

The children who switched course were often those who were involved in one or more extracurricular activities. Of those kids in the study identified as “at risk,” those who participated in at least one activity had a dropout rate that was half the rate of others in the at-risk group. And those who benefited most from the activities were those at greatest risk.

So there are several “windows of opportunity” for change, Robert says. “The early years are important. But so are the years of elementary school and particularly middle school. A lot of lives get switched around at that time.”

The Cairns’ study shows that each day a child spends in school reduces the chance that he or she will drop out or be arrested for violence. “The longer children stay in school, the more likely they are to subscribe to the conventional values that many of us use to organize our lives,” Robert says.

Even children who have many problems can succeed, especially if there is an area at school where they can excel, Robert says. Common avenues for success are athletics or music. But that still leaves a lot of students out. “By only taking the so-called cream of the crop, you’re excluding an awful large quotient of young people who can’t make it no matter what, who’ve only experienced failure,” he says.

It’s those kids that the Cairns try to target with their program, although it’s offered to all sixth graders in the selected schools. While getting excited about music and photography, the children also work on basic reading and math skills. Using some of their photos, they produce a small newspaper, for example. The researchers chose photography because it’s so novel, they thought it would interest the kids. And jazz has roots in the southern African American tradition, which is part of many of the children’s heritage. “We’re trying to reintegrate these kids into a system that they’ve been removed from for a long time,” Robert says.

Part of that is getting parents more involved. “By the time kids get to middle school, especially for those who are not performing well, one of the biggest problems is the total disengagement of parents from the school system,” Robert says. The Alabama parents have gotten involved by helping chaperone field trips to Tuskeegee University and Alabama State University. “We want the parents to have a vision of what these kids can do, to get acquainted with the opportunities that exist at these colleges,” Robert says. Also, about 200 parents and community members attended one exhibition of the children’s photos. By community demand, some of the photos are still in a held-over exhibit at the courthouse.

Winning such community support is crucial. From the beginning, Beverley met with teachers, community activist groups, and local media. Beverley directs the program’s efforts, but there is a manager from each county who runs the program day to day. “The school and community have to take ownership of their program,” she says.

Beverley visits the schools often and has become involved in the community. Parents call her or stop her on the street. And the students are happy to see her. “I like these kids so much,” she says, “and they can sense that.” She’s seen changes in them, such as reduction in absenteeism and in acting up at school. “It’s often the kids who need help the most who respond the quickest and the most dramatically,” she says. “They’re really surprised that someone is interested in them. They’ll say, `You want to take me to Tuskeegee University? Why me?’”

So many of these children are used to being known only for their problems, Robert says. “But we’re finding ways to prevent problems by focusing on children’s potential, rather than their deficiencies.

Too often, when children do poorly in school, we blame them individually,” he says. “In truth, it’s often not entirely their fault. The problem may lie in the school or the home, as well as with the child.”

The CDS permits collaboration in research and training among faculty and fellows from UNC-CH, UNC-Greensboro, Meredith College, Duke, N.C. Central, and N.C. State.