To Foster Resilience, Program Accents the 'Positive Side'
PHILADELPHIA--Adversity is no stranger to the children of John B. Stetson Middle School, situated as it is in one of the city's most crime-, drug-, and unemployment-plagued neighborhoods.
Racial tensions and economic ills have left their mark on this multicultural community in a once-robust manufacturing section that housed the Stetson hat factory.
Drive-by shootings or acts of random violence occur within a 10-block radius of the school as often as once a month, school officials say, and it is not unusual for teachers to find their cars vandalized.
The building, with its dark brick, graffiti-covered exterior, looks more like a fortress than a school; its name is not posted, and all but one entrance is locked.
"This is the perfect school to live out the 'pathetic fallacy,''' notes John Bravo, the principal.
Nonetheless, he says, despite the students' exposure to "death, destruction, unemployment, and perversity, we have many, many successes.''
Many of the children who are faring well, school officials say, are benefiting from a special program being offered in one of three separate schools housed within Stetson.
The Comprehensive Approach to Schooling Success program, or CASS, blends the philosophy of Dr. James P. Comer, a psychiatrist at Yale University, with an academic approach known as the Adaptive Learning Environments Model, or ALEM.
From Dr. Comer, CASS has embraced an emphasis on parental and community involvement and shared decisionmaking among teachers, parents, administrators, and students.
The ALEM program, meanwhile, was designed to tailor regular instruction to the needs of all students, from youngsters with disabilities to the gifted.
The CASS program's academic and support interventions aim to spur "educational resilience'' by using the school setting to help buffer the effects of high-risk home and community environments.
"The practice may not be any different from what you would typically read about in the effective-schools literature,'' notes Margaret Wang, who first developed ALEM and is the director of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities based at Temple University. "But the focus is constantly on the positive side of things.''
Students in the program, which is housed in the "Red House'' section of the school, make up a third of Stetson's population of 1,000 5th through 8th graders. The school's population is predominantly Hispanic, with small percentages of African-American and white students.
Among 6th, 7th, and 8th graders tested on a citywide standardized reading test in 1992, significantly fewer CASS students than those not in the CASS program scored in the lowest 20th percentile; in addition, more CASS students scored in the top 20th percentile in grades 6 and 8 than non-CASS youngsters.
The fact that the CASS testing group included special-education and English-as-a-second-language students while the non-CASS group did not makes the findings even more striking, officials note.
Visitors to the school immediately know when they have entered the Red House: A sign welcomes students, and walls are laced with student art, writing, and projects.
The program also makes greater use of learning centers, gives students more chances to meet objectives they set themselves, and highlights "respect of children's opinions and their ability to make their own decisions,'' says Jane Oates, the program's coordinator.
Teachers also try to tie assignments to children's interests.
The program offers before- and after-school activities and tutoring as well as movie, museum, skating, and other outings with Red House faculty members.
Giving Up Lunch
A city-initiated student-assistance program that links the school to outside agencies helps direct troubled Stetson children and parents to sources of help, but the Red House places a special emphasis on responding to trouble signs.
The goal, says Ms. Oates, is to show "there is somebody who knows you and cares about you and wants you to be the best you can be.''
Yolanda Morales-Cooper, a 7th-grade teacher, says she often intervenes to get her students help with family or social problems.
"I'd give up my lunch any day for that,'' she says.
Ms. Oates tells of a 7th-grade CASS student who went last year from being absent 44 days, cutting more than 100 classes, and getting C's, D's, and F's to, this year, earning A's and B's while recording only a few absences. A turning point, Ms. Oates notes, was pointing out to the student that she had scored in the top 20th percentile on her reading test.
"I got her to think about how well she could be doing if she were here more,'' Ms. Oates says.
The student also worked with members of the school's support staff to get her mother into a drug-treatment program, and the mother has begun spending time at the school.
Other teachers share similar stories of students in high-risk situations who have bounced back.
But not all are success stories.
Ms. Morales worries about one student whose depression and disruptive behavior, which appear linked to both health and family problems, have not waned "no matter how many hugs I give him, no matter how many talks we have.''
Friction Between Houses
The interventions offered in the CASS program, meanwhile, have been a source of friction among some teachers and students elsewhere in the school, who talk wistfully about the Red House's advantages.
Over all, the quality of teaching and level of engagement of students at Stetson appear to vary. Some teachers complain about a lack of uniform discipline policies, and student-council members voice distress over conditions ranging from unsanitary bathrooms to disruptive peers.
Barbara Borine, who works with limited-English-speaking children throughout the school, notes that many teachers there use CASS-like methods, and that not all CASS teachers are true to that model.
But Ms. Oates notes that excellent teachers elsewhere in the school are more isolated and may feel they are "not part of the change.''
What has meant the most for CASS students, she and others say, is the way its teachers deliberately foster a model that builds on strengths.
"This is a group of people who chose to work together with a common philosophy,'' Janet Mundy, the Red House coordinator, notes. The program, she says, "enhances their ability to work together.''