A Plan That Works
His conviction is based on the most personal kind of evidence--his own childhood in East Chicago, Ind. Comer tells how he and three friends started out at an integrated school in one of the more comfortable parts of town. All of them were as intelligent and capable as anyone at the school. Yet, Comer sadly reports, he was the only one of the four to "survive'' school and succeed in life; one friend died young from alcoholism, another has spent much of his life in jail, and the third has been in and out of mental institutions.
Comer believes that the only difference between him and his friends was their family experience. Although his parents had little education--Comer's father was a steel-mill laborer with a 7th grade education and his mother was a domestic with no formal schooling--they gave their children the clear, consistent message that school was the ticket to a better future. The five Comer children went on to earn 13 college degrees between them, thanks, Comer says, to that unwavering encouragement and support.
"That experience made me aware that we were losing too many bright, able people'' because they lacked family support, Comer says. "All of those young people could have been successful, and yet they all went on a downhill course because of something that didn't happen at home and something that didn't happen at school.''
Most of Comer's career has been a search for ways to provide children with the support they need and are not getting at home. After earning a doctorate of medicine from Howard University, Comer returned to East Chicago as a general practitioner. But he became frustrated because what he had in his medical bag could not relieve the problems that afflicted the black community--depression, drug abuse, unstable families, poverty, and perhaps most damaging, hopelessness. Comer concluded that psychiatry might help him prevent other children from ending up like his elementary school friends.
So, in 1964, he came to Yale University for training in psychiatry, and the more he worked with children, the more he came to believe that the school was the only place where children who were stuck in poverty and failure could receive the support their families could not give them. When the Yale Child Study Center received a grant for a school-intervention project in 1968, Comer jumped at the offer to direct what was to become the School Development Program. It gave him exactly what he was looking for--a chance to apply principles of child development and behavior to schools.
Comer has focused on schools ever since, drawing from his experience to refine an approach to education that has come to be known as the "Comer process.'' His school-reform model emphasizes the social context of teaching and learning. No academic progress is possible, Comer argues, until there is a positive environment at the school where teachers, students, and parents like each other and work together for the good of all the students.
The process is built around three elements: a school-governance team, a mental-health team, and parental participation. The basic goal is to create schools that offer children some of the same stable support and role models that Comer looks back on fondly from his own childhood. That may be why Comer's model--unlike countless other disappointing attempts to help lowincome, urban students-- has been remarkably successful.
When Comer first started working with two predominantly black New Haven, Conn., elementary schools more than 20 years ago, students, teachers, and parents were frustrated, angry, and disappointed. The schools were stuck at the bottom of the city rankings in achievement and attendance. Today, they are at or near the top in both those categories, and serious behavior problems have been all but eliminated. Some 35 schools in New Haven and more than 70 in other communities across the country, from Lee County, Ark., to Prince George's County, Md., have now adopted the Comer process, and many of them report equally impressive results. Every week, schools and districts from all over the nation call Comer to learn more about the School Development Program. Teachers, parents, and administrators are enthusiastic.
Comer's program will soon have an even wider, national impact. Because of his success at overcoming the "culture of failure'' that afflicts many schools, the Rockefeller Foundation recently launched a huge, long-term, multimillion-dollar initiative to spread Comer's ideas to teachers, principals, parents, and child-development specialists around the country. (See page 50.) "Comer's work is reflective of the most powerful intervention for at-risk kids that we've encountered,'' says Hugh Price, vice president of the foundation. "His record in turning around failing schools holds enormous promise.''
Why has Comer succeeded where many other well-funded programs have failed? Comer says reforms are doomed if they focus solely on academics without considering the crucial relationships between people in schools. Academic reforms are fine for the 20 percent or so of students who already thrive in school. But for the huge numbers of disadvantaged students who eventually lose interest and drop out, such reforms may do more harm than good.
"Kids are very much affected by the way they are treated by staff,'' Comer explains. "If you ask most kids why they drop out, they don't tell you about money or those sorts of things. They say, 'Nobody cares.' It's this impersonal environment they're in. They have no way of knowing if their teacher cares about them. So you have to create an environment where all the kids feel like they belong and have a right to be there and are cared for.'' Ann O'Connell is the sort of teacher who makes Comer's ideas work. She serves on the governance team at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in New Haven, she has a good rapport with the parents and welcomes their help in her 2nd grade class, and she constantly strives to see that her students do more than just study textbooks and worksheets. She says she can't imagine teaching any other way.
"The Comer program creates a climate in the school as a whole that's conducive to learning,'' O'Connell says. "A lot of what individual teachers do [in the classroom] would be negated if things outside the room were done in a different way. But we have a good climate.''
The group charged with creating that good climate is the governance team, one of the three key elements of the Comer process. Teachers such as O'Connell-- usually chosen to represent their grade level or discipline--play a major role on the team at every Comer school. But Comer stresses that all the "stakeholders'' should have a voice on the team. At a large middle school or high school, teachers might be joined on a 20-person team by the principal, parents, a curriculum specialist, a union representative, a counselor, and a custodian. At a small elementary school like King, the team would be much smaller but would also include teachers, administrators, and parents.
"We realized many of the problems in school were growing out of the fact that people weren't talking with each other, they didn't trust each other, and they didn't like each other,'' Comer says. "We had to create something that brought all those warring and potentially warring people together so that they could work in a cooperative, collaborative way.''
That's exactly what has happened at New Haven's Roberto Clemente Middle School, according to Theresa Kazmaier, a music and life-skills teacher who serves on the governance team. "It changes the interactions from being very difficult to being very positive,'' she says. "Everybody is involved in decisionmaking, everybody is informed about what's going on in the community and in the school. There's a feeling that everybody's thoughts count.''
Whether the topic is parent-teacher conferences or the latest standardized test scores, the governance team makes decisions by consensus. This can be time-consuming, Comer admits, but it avoids the winner-loser mentality that formal votes can produce. Equally important, team members need to spend their time solving the school's problems rather than blaming each other for those problems.
Because the principal remains the school's final authority, much of a team's success depends on the principal's willingness to cooperate. Carl Babb, assistant principal at Clemente Middle School, says the governance team makes his job much easier. "If you don't look at it as threatening, this team works,'' he says. "It helps me to know that I've got a team that is doing things for the building, for the students, for the school system in general.''
In current school-reform jargon, the governance team is Comer's version of school-based management. But he and others on his project staff are somewhat uncomfortable with the term, which in some cases has come to mean more power for teachers without considering the needs of the students. "The battle cry shouldn't just be teacher empowerment,'' says Ed Joyner, a coordinator for the School Development Program, "because parents, social workers, students, and support-service people all need to be empowered.''
O'Connell offers a similar assessment. Serving on the governance team does give her a say in policy decisions at Martin Luther King, but the bottom line is that the team's decisions are "always for the good of the children,'' she notes. "If you keep that in mind, you can't go wrong.''
One of the team's main tasks, after members consult with the entire staff, is to create a comprehensive school plan. Ideally, Comer believes, the plan should encourage as many school activities as possible--inside and outside the classroom--that develop both social and academic skills.
"Middle-income children from better-educated families gain what is necessary to succeed in school simply by growing up with their parents,'' Comer says. "We want to provide some of those experiences in school for inner-city children.''
James Comer's background as a child psychiatrist is evident throughout his model, but perhaps no place more than in its second major element: the mental-health team that is assembled at each school. "When we went into the schools,'' he says, "the psychologists, social workers, specialeducation teachers, and others all worked separately and not around a plan. We found one child who was being seen by seven different people, and none of them talked to each other.''
Why not have all these specialists meet as a team? Comer thought. In addition to eliminating duplication and fragmentation of services, the group could look at the entire school to find the general causes of the problems they were seeing among individual students. Most importantly, the team could help prevent problems. "In many schools, you wait until there is a problem and then you try and treat the child as if the child is the sole source of the problem,'' Comer says. "We focused on prevention because it became apparent that many of the problems of individual children were due to procedures and processes within the school as a whole.''
Comer offers the example of an 8-year-old who transferred to New Haven from rural North Carolina. When the child was brought into his new class the first morning, the teacher--who had already had three transfers the week before--rolled her eyes and offered a nonverbal message of "Oh no, not another one.'' The new student picked up that negative message, looked around at all the strange faces, and panicked; he kicked the teacher and ran out of the room.
"In most schools, that kid would be sent to the principal,'' Comer says. "The principal would punish him and then send him back to the classroom. Some kid will laugh at him or they'll give him the business in some way, and he'll punch somebody out and be sent back. And he goes around and around until he's labeled as disturbed. Then he's sent off to somebody like me to have his head fixed.''
Instead, the school's mental-health team discussed how stressful it must have been for the boy to endure such a radical change in setting. Rather than punish the child, the team worked with the teacher, encouraging her to welcome him back into the class, pair him with other successful students, and generally make him feel welcome in his new school. "We didn't stop with the classroom,'' Comer adds. "Now we don't introduce kids right into a new classroom. We give them an orientation session and let them know how the school functions, what to do if they have a problem.''
The mental-health teams, which typically meet every other week, do deal with individual students. At a recent meeting at Jackie Robinson Middle School, team members discussed a boy who was expelled for bringing an air gun to school and a girl who had recently attempted suicide. In both cases, the group talked about the student's problems at home and at school, as well as the actions they had taken to help the child and the family. But the teams also keep an eye out for problems throughout the school that may demand a more comprehensive approach. One school, for example, has formed a group for children of single parents to discuss their special concerns.
Teachers say it helps to know they can turn to the mental-health team for advice when they have a particularly troublesome student. "If we bring it up to the whole team,'' says O'Connell, the 2nd grade teacher, "we stand a better chance of getting down to what the problem might be sooner.''
Other school practices are a direct result of Comer's knowledge of child development. O'Connell, for instance, is one of many 1st and 2nd grade teachers in New Haven who keep the same students for two years. Comer and other mental-health specialists were searching for ways to provide continuity and stability for the many children whose family lives were anything but stable when they came up with the two-year idea. The practice has brought spectacular results: Some children who made no academic gain in their first year progressed two years in their second year, in part, Comer believes, because of the trusting relationship they were finally able to establish with a caring, predictable teacher.
These efforts to give students emotional and psychological support extend throughout the school. As Roberto Clemente teacher Kazmaier puts it: "We're constantly telling the kids, 'We care about you, you're valuable, we're here to help you.'
But Comer isn't trying to create schools that replace the family. Schools can be improved without the help of the parents, he argues, but they can be much more effective with the third element of his model: parental involvement. "You want parents involved,'' he says, "because it's not enough just to have the kids raise their grades. You're really preparing them for the long run--for jobs and for life after school.'' In the best of circumstances, it's not easy to involve parents in their children's schooling. In the inner city, it's a massive challenge. "When you ask low-income children to do well in school,'' Comer points out, "you're asking them to aspire to positions in life that are different than their own parents, and you've created a conflict between home and school for the child. So you've got to involve parents in a program at the school in ways so they will support the program and not view it as antagonistic.''
Comer's model includes three levels of parental involvement. The smallest and most active group of parents are those who serve on the school's governance team. They are often people, like Deborah Smart, who are active in their parent-teacher group. "I like being involved and knowing what's going on, not only for my kids, but for all the kids in the neighborhood,'' says Smart, president of the Clemente Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization. Smart keeps the PTO members informed about school activities, but she also raises issues at governance-team meetings that first come up in the PTO. When parents expressed concerns about school safety because of unauthorized visitors, for example, the governance team devised a system for having visitors check in and out of the building.
"The school has really been working on getting parents involved,'' Smart says. "They really want us to have a say in what goes on.''
Parents at the second level of involvement help out in the classroom. "I was one of those parents that when I brought my child to school, I used to wait outside,'' recalls Olivia Teague, whose daughter attends Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. "One day the principal came outside and invited me in. So I went inside, and in kindergarten I saw a lot of children with one teacher, and they were all asking for help: 'teacher, teacher, teacher.' I stood there and thought, 'Oh, my goodness.' So I offered my help, and then she invited me back the next day.''
Teague kept coming back to help out, and eventually she did everything from leading reading groups to planning parties. She even substituted at times for the regular teacher. She's now an aide in the school's computer-based "Writing to Read'' program. "It makes you feel like you're doing something,'' she says. "And they make you feel welcome.''
O'Connell certainly welcomes help from parents; Teague worked in her room for 10 years. "If parents would like to come into the school and just sit in the classroom and watch, they know they can do it,'' O'Connell says. "By coming in they see that you don't need to have a teaching degree to be able to contribute to the school or the classroom.''
The students also benefit from good parent-teacher relationships, O'Connell adds. "When there's a problem with a child, it's not me against them,'' she says. "It's us working together for the good of the child.''
Parents who want to volunteer are offered a variety of workshops to match their interests and capabilities with available tasks at school, such as tutoring, clerical work, or cafeteria help. Other workshops teach parents how to help their children with homework, as well as offering advice on topics such as nutrition, finance, and substance abuse. Comer has also visited schools to talk about parenting skills.
But even in New Haven, where there is a strong commitment to parental involvement, volunteers like Smart and Teague are sometimes hard to find; most parents don't have the time or interest to get involved. That's where the third level of Comer's parents program comes in. The school makes a concerted effort to organize activities that entice parents into the building. So, for the majority of mothers and fathers, participation means attending the numerous events that appear on each school's social calendar--everything from Black History Month dinners and Halloween parades to book fairs and student concerts.
"You'll never be satisfied with parental participation,'' admits Kazmaier. "We still work on that. Any kind of activity that involves youngsters, we always try to have parents attend. And any time a parent walks into the building, you have some parental contact. We try to get the parents in on a comfortable level.''
Some of Comer's schools boast of parentalinvolvement levels that would be the envy of even the most stable, affluent community. Take Katherine Brennan Elementary School in New Haven, a predominantly black school that serves a housing project: Last year, more than 90 percent of the parents visited the school at least 10 times.
Every school in New Haven and elsewhere that has adopted the Comer process uses its basic elements--the governance team, the mentalhealth team, and parental participation. But there's plenty of room for variation from school to school.
"In all of the schools and districts we are in, you will find many, many different things that grow out of the comprehensive school plan,'' Comer says. "Those things are not the program, per se, but they are what the program makes possible because people are able to work together in a cooperative, collaborative way, and the creative energy of everybody in the building comes together.''
Prince George's County, in suburban Washington, D.C., has attracted national attention for its success in raising the performance of minority students. Jan Stocklinski, who supervises the Comer program there, credits part of that success to the implementation of Comer's ideas. She says his model is especially well suited for a place like Prince George's, where many of the teachers come from a different racial and socioeconomic background than their students. The emphasis on communication between teachers and parents, she says, helps overcome the mutual suspicion and lack of trust that often exist.
Stocklinski says that there has been some resistance to the program among teachers and other staff members who think it adds to their already-heavy workloads. That may be true in the short term, she notes, because it often takes time to reach consensus and develop comprehensive plans for an entire school. "But the long-term result,'' she says, "is that the children's behavior is better in class, so teachers can spend more time on the academic tasks.'' And when schools are struggling with the model, she adds, it's usually because the staff hasn't learned how to work together for the good of the students.
Comer maintains that schools shouldn't need much extra money to make his program work, an important factor that could make his model even more attractive to districts, especially in a time of tight budgets. "It's the way you use what you have that is most important,'' he says. "We're asking people to work differently. Our approach asks social workers, psychologists, and special-education teachers to use the one-on-one approach less and to apply their knowledge of child development and relationship issues to the entire program of the school and to share their knowledge with their colleagues in general education who do not have that knowledge.''
And, he adds, there's no time to waste: "We've got to make it possible for all of the children to succeed so they can meet the expectations of school and the expectations of society. If we don't do that, our country is on a downhill course in 20 or 30 years. So we've got to make a difference, and we've got to make a difference very quickly.''
Comer understands this daunting challenge as well as anyone, but he remains optimistic about the future. "Things can be turned around,'' he says. "But enough people need to understand that education really has to be based on what kids are like and what kids need. If we can get the bureaucracy and processes in education really designed to address the needs of children, then we can turn education around.''