March 12, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Robert Barr, a nationally known researcher of at-risk children and youth, believes he has discovered Lake Wobegon.

Lake Wobegon is the fictional place in Minnesota that Garrison Keillor talks of in his radio program Prairie Home Companion. At Lake Wobegon, Keillor says all the children are above average.

In a sense, Union County is Lake Wobegon, Barr said. He explained that the results of the Search Institutes 40 developmental assets survey of teen-agers indicates that many Union County youths are above the national average, having more of the developmental assets needed for success than the national average.

I have found Lake Wobegon, Barr said with a smile Monday night during a presentation at La Grande Middle School.

Barr is a senior analyst with the Boise State University Center for School Improvement.

He said the Union County survey results indicate young people are closely bonded to their families and schools. Seventy percent of those surveyed indicated their families provide high levels of love and support.

I have never encountered a number this high (for this category) in another community. It is off the chart, Barr said.

The survey indicates 60 percent of youths felt a strong bond to their school but just 29 percent said they felt their school was a caring place.

Barr said he was impressed and surprised that 72 percent of Union Countys youths indicated they have a positive view of the future. He said this is remarkable considering that the future today is generally looked upon as frightening. Barr said this is a positive reflection on the support youths receive in their community.

A total of 1,641 youths in grades 7-12 a very high percentage of the countys high school and middle school students participated in the survey last spring for the Take Time For Kids program.

The Search Institute, based in Minneapolis, has surveyed more than a million teen-agers in the United States in recent years. The institute has found a direct correlation between the assets a community has and the likelihood that youths will avoid negative behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use and early sex.

Barr said he is concerned that the survey showed that only 23 percent of the youths said that the community values them and that just 27 percent believe they have meaningful roles in it.

Barr said that a number of things can be done to change this. Adults need to reach out to youths outside their families. They need to show an interest in young people and talk with them. Barr said throughout the nation adults dont take the time needed to help children and teen-agers.

Adults no longer play a role in the lives of children outside the family, Barr said.

Barr recalled that when he was growing up in Texas all the mothers in his neighborhood were out in their yards as their kids came home from school. They would talk with all the children and make sure they were OK.

Today this does not happen as often because many mothers are at work in the afternoon. Thus many children and teen-agers in the United States are home alone for two to three hours after school. Barr said these are the hours that many young people get into trouble.

Some teen-age girls get pregnant during this time of day and many young people experiment with drugs, he said.

While it is understandably hard for parents to be home in the afternoon, Barr believes much can be done to give young people meaningful roles. He said he attempts to do this as a grandfather.