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School Development Program

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'It takes a whole village to raise a child.''

This is a proverb that rings true to thousands of teachers struggling to overcome the crushing problems that so many children bring to their classrooms. The proverb is also at the heart of the School Development Program that Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer has spent a quarter of a century building.

In a word, Comer's program stresses children's psychological preparation for school and the collaboration of school staff and parents in meeting children's academic and social needs.

The SDP was established in 1968 in two of the poorest and least successful elementary schools in New Haven, Conn. Comer believed that school was the only place where children stuck in poverty and failure could get the support their families could not give them. But he also realized that traditional schools were not equipped to provide that support. He and his colleagues studied the problems of family stress and the underdevelopment of the skills and attitudes that students need to succeed in school. He also studied the schools and their staffs to identify how organization, management, and lack of child development knowledge and skill adversely affect children.

The SDP is built around three elements: a school-governance team, which includes parents, teachers, administrators, and support staff; a mental-health team; and broad parental participation.

The governance team is the main element; it is responsible for developing a comprehensive school plan that fosters a sense of community and a climate conducive for learning; it also carries on staff development activities and monitors and assesses the program. The mental-health team addresses individual student needs, but its focus is on preventing problems. It identifies and tries to eliminate school procedures and practices that are harmful to students, staff, and parents. Parents participate in three major ways: as a group working with staff to plan social and academic activities; as part of the governance team, through their representatives; and as general participants in various school events.

Comer and his colleagues developed the "Social Skills Curriculum for Inner-City Children,'' which integrates the teaching of academic and social skills and an appreciation of the arts in a way that channels the aggressive energy of students into learning and work.

The SDP, Comer says, differs from most other reform programs in several ways: Its approach is comprehensive rather than focused on one major group or one program area; it is completely driven by child development concerns; and instead of stressing only academic achievement, it seeks to create a school climate that fosters the overall development of students.

More than 150 schools in 14 districts in 12 states and the District of Columbia are participating in the SDP. And Comer's impact is growing. The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $3 million a year for five years to extend the program to more schools across the nation. A 14-part video series was produced in 1990 to convey in detail its principles and procedures. And in response to mounting cries for help, Comer and his staff are training school personnel to implement the program in their own districts. Finally, Comer is exploring the possibility of creating a new partnership that would bring together political, economic, and social welfare communities in support of education. Such a partnership would include as many as a 100 research-oriented schools of education that are involved in promoting community-based professional development programs for training teachers, a national administrators' group committed to school reform, and a state consortium of organizations.

"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 innercity children.''

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