Student Well-Being

Nurturing Atmosphere: One School Strives To Be Kinder, Gentler

By Jessica Portner — April 19, 2000 10 min read
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Squinting into the lunch-hour sunshine, Jackie Garcia scans the vast, blacktop playground for signs of altercations. Spotting a scuffle between a pair of 2nd graders playing kickball, Jackie, 11, bounds toward them, her bright-orange slicker, emblazoned with the title “Conflict Manager,” flapping as she runs.

PART II: April 19, 2000
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Fall Short on Prevention

Prevention: Los Angeles
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One School Strives
To Be Kinder, Gentler

Memphis: A District Under Emotional Renovation

S.D. Psychologist
Alone on the Range

Budget Battles
And Mental-Health Care

Gay Students: A Vulnerable Group

For More Information

PART I: April 12, 2000
Image Complex Set of Ills Spurs Rising Teen Suicide Rate

About This Series
To Learn More

“OK, what happened?” she queries the 7-year-olds, who in turn begin mumbling exaggerated tales. After eliciting promises that the children will cease their pushing and name-calling, the 5th grader marks their names on her clipboard. The young combatants shake hands and resume their game as Jackie dashes to the water fountain to mediate another schoolyard battle.

Beginning in kindergarten, students at Elizabeth Learning Center here learn how to play nice.

Since a series of multiple-victim shootings erupted at schools across the country more than two years ago, the public has increasingly worried that schools are hazardous places where peer rivalries fester and plots to wreak violence play out under administrators’ noses. Such environments can be hazardous to children’s mental health.

But those who run the Elizabeth Learning Center say the school might as well post a sign out front saying “Columbine couldn’t happen here,” referring to last year’s shooting rampage at a Colorado high school.

Promoting Wellness

Besides the conflict-resolution patrols, the tidy public school deep in a Los Angeles barrio is a virtual shopping mall of wellness programs, packed with social services a student in trouble might need: a full-time school psychologist, a team of five counselors, a physician-staffed medical clinic, speech therapists, individual tutoring, and adult education classes for those who live in the neighborhood.

“There’s a family feeling here,” Emilio Vasquez, the perpetually smiling principal, said recently of the 3,000 student K-12 school he calls his “big red schoolhouse.”

This experiment in changing a school’s climate started five years ago in the offices of Howard Adelman, the University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist who operates a laboratory of sorts for nurturing schools. Through a three-year multimillion-dollar grant from New American Schools, a national, nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., the school was reorganized in 1996 to address the emotional needs of children and their families in addition to academics.

The aim was to use Elizabeth Learning Center to test Mr. Adelman’s experimental ideas. If the children thrived academically and emotionally when exposed to an array of services—and so far they seem to have—then more schools like it could be coaxed to grow.

“This isn’t some mindless self-esteem stuff,” Mr. Adelman said recently from his UCLA office. “It’s about programmatic restructuring of schools to remove barriers to learning.”

Mr. Adelman chose the school because the students here face every barrier in the book—malnutrition, asthma, learning disabilities, chaotic home lives. Students’ parents, mostly immigrant families from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and El Salvador, are so poor that a single apartment often houses three families. The average per capita income is $9,000 a year—one of the lowest in the nation—making every student eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program.

Drive-by shootings are a common menace in Cudahy, a city the Los Angeles Police Department says has one of the highest murder rates in Los Angeles County. More than 15 Latino gangs patrol the filthy, narrow streets at night, forcing most residents to remain in their homes after sunset to avoid gunfire. To many residents, Elizabeth Learning Center’s half square block is an oasis in a war zone.

The place looks like other schools, with its uniformed children playing and laughing in the California sun at recess. But a closer look reveals research-tested education reform experiments running in virtually every corner.

Five years ago, what was then a middle school became the K-12 Elizabeth Learning Center, containing three schools that work as cohesive units. The transition grades between elementary, middle, and high school are often the periods when students exhibit the most discipline problems and their grades tend to decline. Having three schools in one eliminates the need to adjust to a new environment, Mr. Vasquez, the principal, said.

“The kids aren’t changing anything. It’s the same campus, same teachers, same lunch tables,” he said. “There are no new territories to establish, nothing to prove, and they don’t have all this new bravado.”

Just in case, the school trains older “peer leaders” to give the 5th and 8th grade students any transition assistance—new pencils, notebooks, a companion at lunchtime—they may require.

Another hallmark of the particular New American Schools reform model being replicated at Elizabeth Learning Center is small class sizes. Most teachers have between 15 and 20 students. Aside from the education benefits of more personalized instruction, “it’s easier to let your feelings out in small settings,” said Richard Rusiecki, one of the school’s three psychologists.

The Right People

A critical part of creating a kinder, gentler school is picking the right people.

“You can’t get somebody that doesn’t work well with other people, or you’re dead,” Mr. Vasquez said. This is a place where everyone from the groundskeeper to the principal is enlisted as an emotional custodian.

One recent Monday, the “learning supports” committee gathers around a conference table for its weekly meeting to share information about students’ problems and to organize a timely, coordinated response. It is one of eight teams, made up of school personnel from different departments, that governs all school business from curriculum selection and facilities maintenance to budget and parental involvement.

Today, two special education teachers, a school psychologist, two counselors, a nurse, and a speech therapist charged with safeguarding the mental health of students slowly plow through this week’s case files.

First is Julio, a 1st grader with a serious speech impediment and apparent hearing loss. He needs to return to kindergarten and go to language training, the committee members all agree. The nurse says she will get him to a doctor to rule out an ear infection.

Next on the list is Erica, a belligerent kindergartner who strikes her teacher and won’t sit still in class. The teacher and counselor speculate on a diagnosis. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Emotional trauma? One of them writes a note: Call the mother. Psychiatric exam needed.

A governing principle at Elizabeth Learning Center is regular, scheduled communication involving all the staff members who touch the life of each child in the school. Mental-health experts say that many schools miss warning signs of impending criminal or self-destructive behavior because they don’t share information with the teacher in the next classroom, let alone the school nurse.

While hardly foolproof, coordinating data among multiple points of contact makes it harder for students’ problems to fall through the cracks at Elizabeth, Mr. Rusiecki, the school psychologist, said.

Mr. Rusiecki recalls one 18-year-old student who last year wrote a note in class saying, “I don’t want to live because I’m a disappointment to my father.” As soon as the student’s teacher retrieved the note, the teacher met with Mr. Rusiecki, who referred the senior that day to a mental-health clinic two miles from the school. The boy and his father are now both in counseling.

With the idea that serving the community’s need for improved education and psychological services ultimately will benefit students, the school sacrificed three bungalow classrooms to operate a Family Center.

The more than 60 parent volunteers who staff the center perform a myriad of tasks, such as arranging counseling appointments for students, aiding teachers, and helping patrol the schoolyard. Some are even being trained to teach phonics.

But the parents are also eligible for services for themselves.

In one of the classrooms, more than 700 parents stream in from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday for classes in areas such as computer use, aerobics, knitting, citizenship, and General Educational Development, or GED, studies to earn a high-school-equivalency diploma.

Most of the parents don’t have a diploma, and research has shown that improving a parent’s English skills can help improve children’s academic achievement. To encourage attendance, the center offers a day-care center next door that is also staffed by parent volunteers.

One of the distinctive services the school offers is individual psychological counseling for parents who themselves are in crisis.

Maria Elena Gonzalez remembers when she came into the Family Center a few years ago, utterly distraught about her daughter, Susan, then in high school. The 15-year-old had nearly died from an overdose of Tylenol and alcohol after her boyfriend was shot during a gang altercation. The girl was hospitalized and released but had become a heavy user of cocaine, marijuana, and LSD. Ms. Gonzalez, who couldn’t afford a private-practice psychologist, went to the school’s professional staff for advice.

“The counselor helped me figure out how to talk to my daughter, and now she’s doing OK,” Ms. Gonzalez said.

Emi Elizondo, the director of the Family Center, said the full-service-school concept often means reaching into areas that usually are reserved for other public institutions.

Like many school improvement efforts, the Elizabeth Learning Center experiment isn’t cheap. The school costs $8 million a year to run, from teachers’ salaries to clinic supplies to custodial mops. Besides money from the Los Angeles Unified School District and the start-up funds from the initial New American Schools grant, the Kellogg Foundation and others have underwritten school services since 1996.

And school leaders have found creative ways to cut expenses. The parent volunteers who together logged more than 3,000 hours over three months saved the school more than $26,000.

Encouraging Results

No sure statistical barometers measure how the school climate has changed since the new organization was first adopted, but some data have been encouraging.

Student suspensions—an average of five a week—are down from dozens a day and are now mostly for fighting or dress-code infractions, rather than weapons possession or assault.

Besides feeling safer, students here are less apt to be self-destructive than their counterparts at other schools.

Neighboring Bell High School averages two suicide attempts per week. In the five years since Elizabeth Learning Center opened, not a single student has taken his or her life.

At the same time, the school’s test scores have inched up: In 1996, Elizabeth students scored in the 16th percentile on state tests; last year, they were in the 20th percentile.

The dropout rate hovers near 2 percent, and the graduation rate—at 95 percent—is double that of the neighboring schools. More than 75 percent of students take the SAT.

Mr. Vasquez says that the larger life lessons taught at his school are as valuable a part of the curriculum as calculus and biology.

Practicing Empathy

At 7:30 a.m., a group of 50 4th and 5th graders sits down at long plastic tables for a weekly conflict-resolution class before heading to homeroom.

Jackie Garcia, donning her orange vest at a head table with a half-dozen other “conflict managers,” listens attentively as a school counselor, Gary Burbank, goes over the basic points of mediating a playground scuffle: Don’t take sides or interrupt, listen actively, and make eye contact.

“The byword here is empathy,” Mr. Burbank tells the children. “Does anyone remember that word? We try to understand how they feel and to understand why they are so unhappy.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Nurturing Atmosphere: One School Strives To Be Kinder, Gentler


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