Jenson finds life’s work in kids’ risky behavior

As a teacher in the 1970s, Jeff Jenson found himself drawn to the students in his middle school classroom who took drugs, missed class or consistently ended up in the principal’s office. It took him down a career path dedicated to finding out why kids get in trouble — and how that troubled behavior could be prevented.

Career success for Jenson has come in the number of kids helped through the innovative prevention programs he’s helped form, the emergence of intervention as a distinct field of social work research and the University’s recognition of his many contributions. 

Jenson, professor and director of the PhD program at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), received the 2007 University Lecturer award at this year’s Convocation. He is the Philip D. and Eleanor G. Winn Professor for Children and Youth at Risk, the first endowed GSSW professorship.

James Herbert Williams, the new GSSW dean, is a longtime colleague of Jenson’s. They have collaborated on one book on youth violence and are beginning another. Jenson’s work is known nationally and internationally, says Williams, for its insights into youth at risk and its focus on intervention.  

“He provides an outstanding foundation for our faculty,” says Williams. “Jeff is a terrific scholar and a terrific person.”

Desire to help youth started in college

Jenson earned his teaching degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1976. His desire to help the troubled youth he taught during the ’70s led him to study public policy and social work, earning an MPA from the University of Montana in 1984 and an MSW and PhD in social work from the University of Washington in 1987 and 1988, respectively.

Since then, he has written, edited and researched numerous studies, books and articles on juvenile delinquency and high-risk youth. Since coming to DU in 1998, Jenson has continued his research and launched local community programs aimed at preventing high-risk behavior and empowering disadvantaged youth to succeed in school.

In 1992, then-Chancellor Dan Ritchie provided the inspiration and the Winns much of the funding for GSSW to establish the Bridge Project. Jenson has been the Bridge Professor for Children, Youth and Families since 2002, helping assess the academic and behavioral progress of children participating in the program, who are from three Denver public housing developments. Bridge staff and volunteers provide tutoring, mentoring and academic skill development through after-school, summer and scholarship programs to young people living in these developments. The project has been instrumental, says Jenson, in improving the academic skills of these students.

New work with youth

Jenson’s newest project for improving the lives of young students is “Youth Matters” a three-year prevention trial conducted in partnership with Denver Public Schools funded by the federal government. It’s a program aimed at preventing bullying and aggression among elementary school students. Working with victims to develop self-esteem and bullies to prevent aggressive behavior, Jenson’s curriculum has reduced bullying in participating schools by 10 percent.

Although he has little time to reflect on his accomplishments, Jenson says he appreciates the recognition he’s received from his colleagues and DU. But the recognition he values most, he says, lies in the children no longer teetering on the edge of society.

“It’s been invigorating to see intervention evolve as a field of study,” Jenson says. “I think we need to do more of that in social work.”

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