50 years of ed­u­cat­ing the whole child

Comer model used world­wide

New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ed Stan­nard

NEW HAVEN — Ed­u­cat­ing the whole child, pay­ing at­ten­tion to stu­dents’ so­cial needs, per­sonal de­vel­op­ment and fam­ily is­sues, is widely ac­cepted as a part of pub­lic schools’ mis­sion to­day.

Fifty years ago, that wasn’t the case. Then along came Dr. James Comer.

A psy­chi­a­trist at the Yale Child Study Cen­ter, he is in­ter­na­tion­ally known for what is com­monly called the “Comer model,” for­mally known as the Comer School De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram. It be­gan at the two low­est-per­form­ing schools in New Haven in 1968 and is now used in more than 1,000 schools world­wide.

Comer, still fine-tun­ing his pro­gram at 84, knew when he started that he was ap­proach­ing the poor per­for­mance of New Haven’s school­child­ren as a physi­cian, not an ed­u­ca­tor. But he drew heav­ily on his own life story.

“My fa­ther was from ru­ral Alabama and had maybe a sixth-, sev­enth-grade ed­u­ca­tion,” Comer said. “My mother was from ru­ral Mis­sis­sippi and, at most, had two years of ed­u­ca­tion.” He said his mother’s pic­ture is now in the Great Mi­gra­tion sec­tion of the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Mu­seum for African-Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture in Washington, D.C.

“The two of them sent their five chil­dren to col­lege (who) re­ceived 13 col­lege de­grees, and it was the fact that they gave us a home ex­pe­ri­ence that made that pos­si­ble, that changed my life tra­jec­tory.”

Comer knew his suc­cess had to have been in­stilled by his fam­ily life. “I was do­ing my in­tern­ship in my home­town and I saw my friends go­ing down a down­hill course,” he said. That town was East Chicago, Ind., “a small, tough, steel mill town tucked in be­tween Gary, Ind., and Chicago, Ill.”

“I re­al­ized the dif­fer­ence was we had a good de­vel­op­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ence. We were able to be suc­cess­ful in school and had op­por­tu­ni­ties in life, good op­por­tu­ni­ties in life, and my friends didn’t, even though they were just as smart.” One of his friends “died of al­co­holism, the other spent his time in and out of men­tal health in­sti­tu­tion and the other spent sig­nif­i­cant jail time,” Comer said.

In his fam­ily, “We had the kind of de­vel­op­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ence so that our par­ents pro­tected us,” Comer said. “We had the same ex­po­sures, the same near in­volve­ments” with po­ten­tial trou­ble.

“They ex­posed us to ev­ery­thing ed­u­ca­tional they could find … and they gave us an ex­pe­ri­ence at home that was mo­ti­va­tional — car­ing, guid­ance, rules, high ex­pec­ta­tions and they pre­ferred to teach (rather) than pun­ish.”

Comer had planned to be­come a gen­eral prac­ti­tioner, but had sec­ond thoughts dur­ing his in­tern­ship when “I ob­served kids just like my friends who were go­ing on the same down­hill course as my friends.”

So Comer de­cided to go into pub­lic health and joined the U.S. Pub­lic Health Ser­vice Com­mis­sioned Corps, a non­com­bat­ant ser­vice un­der the U.S. sur­geon gen­eral. He vol­un­teered with peo­ple who had been “thrown off the wel­fare rolls. Their liv­ing con­di­tions were frag­mented and ter­ri­ble,” he said. “So the ques­tion be­came, how do you pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing? What could I do?”

“I had looked at the big so­ci­ety through pub­lic health, but I wanted to look at in­di­vid­u­als,” Comer said. The

Pub­lic Health Ser­vice sent him to the Yale School of Medicine from 1964 to 1967, where he was a psy­chi­atric fel­low and fin­ished as a fel­low at Hill­crest Chil­dren and Fam­ily Cen­ter, “the same com­mu­nity where the ri­ots took place af­ter Martin Luther King was as­sas­si­nated.” But there were no other African Amer­i­cans in the clin­i­cal pro­gram at that time.

In 1968, Dr. Al­bert Sol­nit, di­rec­tor of the Child Study Cen­ter, “had ob­tained funds from the Ford Foun­da­tion to look at ed­u­ca­tion as a way of im­prov­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for African Amer­i­cans,” Comer said. “He called me back to di­rect the pro­gram.”

Two schools, Martin Luther King and Bald­win schools, were cho­sen be­cause they were the low­est-per­form­ing schools in the New Haven school dis­trict. The pro­gram later was moved from Bald­win, which was closed, to the Kather­ine Bren­nan School (now the Bren­nan Rogers School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Me­dia). King is now the King-Robin­son In­ter-Dis­trict Mag­net School.

“It was Bren­nan and King that turned around dra­mat­i­cally,” Comer said. From the bot­tom of the list, the two schools rose to the top aca­dem­i­cally.

“The model I used was not what was be­ing used in ed­u­ca­tion,” he said. “I knew noth­ing about schools. I knew noth­ing about ed­u­ca­tion. I didn’t have an ed­u­ca­tional back­ground. I knew about kids.”

Paul Del Gobbo of Durham was prin­ci­pal of Kather­ine Bren­nan School when the Comer model was in­tro­duced. “It all started with him com­ing over and talk­ing to me and a few rep­re­sen­ta­tive teach­ers, and of course we liked what he had to say,” Del Gobbo said.

“Dr. Comer is a ter­rific guy and he be­lieves in con­sen­sus, in mak­ing de­ci­sions, and he be­lieves in no blame or no fault, as he calls it. We used to meet reg­u­larly and we had par­ents in­volved, teach­ers in­volved, and we made all kinds of de­ci­sions,” he said. The par­ents were paid for three hours a day but many ended up stay­ing all day long.

“We hired par­ents to help teach­ers,” Del Gobbo said. “Be­fore you know it the whole school wanted a par­ent work­ing. We gave the par­ent staff de­vel­op­ment once a week and they loved it. Our grades im­proved, def­i­nitely. We had a lot fewer dis­ci­pline prob­lems, a lot fewer kids got sent to the of­fice and we did well.

“The morale was out of sight, which was ter­rific,” Del Gobbo said. “We never had an ar­gu­ment. Ev­ery­one had a voice. We helped the kids aca­dem­i­cally, emo­tion­ally, in ev­ery way pos­si­ble.”

How­ever, once Del Gobbo left for a job in the cen­tral of­fice and a new prin­ci­pal took over and there were new stu­dents and par­ents, the pro­gram lan­guished. “When there’s change, it’s dif­fi­cult to sus­tain what you’re do­ing,” he said. “Peo­ple have to buy into the pro­gram and when they don’t things change.”

The School De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram is based on three pil­lars: “no-fault prob­lem-solv­ing,” in which teach­ers and school staff are not blamed for prob­lems that oc­cur or for a lack of achieve­ment; “con­sen­sus de­ci­sion-mak­ing,” in which “you try and get ev­ery­body to think about what’s good for chil­dren; and “col­lab­o­ra­tion,” Comer said.

“Even­tu­ally, those guide­lines be­came the cul­ture of the school as they played them out, lived them out. That’s the way they be­gan to live and work,” Comer said. “In this school we don’t solve prob­lems by ar­gu­ing and fight­ing. We work it out.”

“What we did was help the teach­ers think dif­fer­ently about kids, about be­hav­ior prob­lems first. We looked at what struc­tures were needed to pre­vent those be­hav­ior prob­lems from oc­cur­ring,” he said. The first step was a gov­er­nance and man­age­ment team that rep­re­sented all the groups in the school: par­ents, teach­ers, ad­min­is­tra­tors, sup­port staff and older stu­dents.

“That gave them a sense of own­er­ship … and they had to make it hap­pen and so they had to hold them­selves ac­count­able. They iden­ti­fied the goals and they devel­oped the strate­gies for achiev­ing those goals.”

Two other teams, the par­ents team and school staff sup­port team, made up of coun­selors, guid­ance coun­selors and psy­chol­o­gists, com­pleted the “com­pre­hen­sive school plan that in­cluded the aca­demic fo­cus [and] a so­cial fo­cus so you made the school a good place for ev­ery­body,” Comer said. “Good re­la­tion­ships were pro­moted through all the ac­tiv­i­ties you carry out in your school. Once you have good re­la­tion­ships, you can do ev­ery­thing else.”

The plan changed the schools’ cul­ture, in which “ev­ery­body was iso­lated, do­ing their own thing,” Comer said.

The pro­gram was ex­ported to other schools. In Nor­folk, Va., “We com­bined it with Ed Zigler’s pro­gram and that school that had in­ner-city pro­ject kids went from be­ing last in the city to first.”

Zigler, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of psy­chol­ogy at Yale School of Medicine, founded the Ed­ward Zigler Cen­ter in Child De­vel­op­ment & So­cial Pol­icy.

The change was so dra­matic the school su­per­in­ten­dent was ac­cused of cheat­ing on the numbers so the school was tested again and the av­er­age score was two points higher than the first time.

Her­man Clark was prin­ci­pal of the school, Bowl­ing Park El­e­men­tary School, which he said was sim­i­lar to a New Haven school, “lack­ing parental in­volve­ment, high-crime com­mu­nity and hard to staff.” He said Comer and his staff con­tacted him and “talked to me about the Comer model and how it could im­prove all of the path­ways to achieve­ment, not just aca­demics.

“I think the thing that im­pressed me the most was the fact that they were there to work side by side with us,” Clark said. “This was an ideal ap­proach. It was non­threat­en­ing.”

Clark and sev­eral teach­ers and par­ents came to New Haven to ob­serve schools, then went back to civic or­ga­ni­za­tions, PTAs and re­cre­ation cen­ters to spread the word and, when Clark made his pre­sen­ta­tion, 400 par­ents at­tended. “That alone im­pressed school board mem­bers … It was just a happy fam­ily of peo­ple,” Clark said. “On a daily ba­sis, we had over 50 par­ents vol­un­teer in our school. We ended up be­ing the No. 1 school in the city of Nor­folk in the year af­ter im­ple­ment­ing the Comer model.

“The school is con­tin­u­ing to do bet­ter,” he said. For a while af­ter he left, the school lost its ac­cred­i­ta­tion, but “now it’s start­ing to im­prove again.”

In ad­di­tion to the three guide­lines and three teams, the School De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram has three op­er­at­ing prin­ci­ples: a com­pre­hen­sive school plan with aca­demic and so­cial com­po­nents, staff de­vel­op­ment and on­go­ing assess­ment and mod­i­fi­ca­tion, Comer said.

“You’re al­ways fig­ur­ing out how you’re do­ing aca­dem­i­cally and so­cially and you’re mak­ing ad­just­ments to your an­swers,” he said. “You keep chang­ing and so you get or­ganic change.”

The aim of the pro­gram is to at­tend to all needs of the child, at home, in the neigh­bor­hood and in the school, not just to fo­cus on test scores. “The prob­lem in ed­u­ca­tion is that it has fo­cused un­til about the time we came along … on the aca­demics only … and the de­vel­op­ment along the path­ways needed for suc­cess in school and life have to be in­te­grated,” Comer said.

Ob­serv­ing how chil­dren who mis­be­haved were be­ing pun­ished and la­beled dis­turbed and sent to him for treat­ment, Comer re­al­ized “ed­u­ca­tion is not fo­cused on child de­vel­op­ment and teach­ers were there on the front lines do­ing the work where knowl­edge of child de­vel­op­ment should have been a cen­tral re­quire­ment of ev­ery­body who works with kids.”

Un­der­stand­ing child de­vel­op­ment “helps them on the job ap­ply knowl­edge of chil­dren to the be­hav­ior. It helps them un­der­stand how at­tach­ment, en­gage­ment are so very im­por­tant and … how so­cial, emo­tional learn­ing are all in­te­grated, and we now know through knowl­edge of the brain that that’s the case.”

Comer knew this from his fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence and in­tu­ition. “It wasn’t un­til the end of the eight­ies that knowl­edge of the brain” con­firmed his the­o­ries, he said. Sci­en­tists found “that the brain was be­ing struc­tured by the child’s in­ter­ac­tions. The child is in­ter­act­ing and try­ing to suc­ceed and that’s what grows the brain and we now know that.”

Comer’s pro­gram was un­der­cut by the 2001 No Child Left Be­hind Act, en­acted un­der Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, which fo­cused on grant­ing fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion money based on test scores.

“No Child Left Be­hind fo­cused peo­ple on cur­ricu­lum and in­struc­tion and read­ing and math and all the other stuff they con­sid­ered just stuff, unim­por­tant,” Comer said.

“It was pol­i­tics. They were be­liev­ers and they were all mid­dle­class, well-ed­u­cated peo­ple who went to pri­vate schools, most of them, and I think most of them were true be­liev­ers that that was what ed­u­ca­tion was about, but in so do­ing they ig­nored the ev­i­dence,” he said.

A study had been done of 29 ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams na­tion­ally and “only three showed con­sis­tently strong per­for­mance” both aca­dem­i­cally and so­cially, he said. “Ours was one of the three. The fall­out of that was peo­ple said com­pre­hen­sive school re­form didn’t work and they didn’t look at the three that did work.”

Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials were look­ing at cur­ricu­lum alone and “ours isn’t based on cur­ricu­lum change. No one was look­ing at the fact that the prob­lem in schools has lit­tle to do with cur­ricu­lum,” Comer said.

The Comer model was slow to gain trac­tion be­cause stu­dents who tend to do well in school “are gen­er­ally from fam­i­lies or en­vi­ron­ments or net­works that are sup­port­ive,” he said. “Wher­ever you have fam­i­lies that live un­der eco­nomic, so­cial stress, marginal­iza­tion, trauma, so­cial, psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma, those con­di­tions in­ter­fere with the de­vel­op­ment of kids and, when they don’t de­velop well, they can’t learn well.

“You still have peo­ple who don’t want that to change. They don’t want that ad­van­tage to change, and you can’t on the one hand com­plain about prob­lems of crime, about prob­lems of de­pen­dency, about prob­lems of peo­ple not be­ing com­mit­ted to democ­racy,” Comer said. “All the prob­lems we have are re­lated to the fact that we haven’t done very well with our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem.”

Now, the Child Study Cen­ter is col­lab­o­rat­ing with the School of Ed­u­ca­tion at South­ern Con­necti­cut State Univer­sity and the New Haven Pub­lic Schools, although new lead­er­ship at both in­sti­tu­tions has de­layed progress, he said.

Comer doesn’t be­lieve he’s suc­ceeded in chang­ing the ed­u­ca­tional cul­ture na­tion­ally. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s hard to get to it be­cause you’ve got to con­vince peo­ple.”

Tim Shriver, chair­man of the Spe­cial Olympics (founded by his mother, Eu­nice Kennedy Shriver), grad­u­ated from Yale Univer­sity in 1981 and taught at Hill­house High School. “I spent a year at the Child Study Cen­ter in a fel­low­ship to be trained in 1984,” Shriver said, tak­ing a leave from the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut chap­ter of Up­ward Bound, a pro­gram for dis­ad­van­taged youth.

Shriver “re­turned to the New Haven Pub­lic Schools af­ter that and re­ally set up the field called so­cial and emo­tional learn­ing,” he said. “We worked within col­lab­o­ra­tions to de­velop cur­ric­ula, dis­ci­plinary strate­gies, fam­ily en­gage­ment strate­gies, teacher­train­ing strate­gies.”

Shriver, who launched the Col­lab­o­ra­tive for Aca­demic, So­cial and Emo­tional Learn­ing at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago, said of Comer, “His im­pact, not just through me but through many oth­ers, has been to re­shape schools into places that not only teach head but teach heart … that teach in­spi­ra­tion as well as in­spi­ra­tion. … He’s one of the most in­flu­en­tial ed­u­ca­tors in the his­tory of the United States.”

He said the Comer model has not made as large an im­pact in New Haven as it might have. “I think the prob­lem in a place like New Haven has been the ab­sence of sus­tained at­ten­tion to im­ple­men­ta­tion,” he said. “Dr. Comer’s work calls for a much longer hori­zon of child de­vel­op­ment. You can’t just drop it in like a wid­get. There are no vac­cines in ed­u­ca­tion.

“There are some good schools in New Haven and there are some fan­tas­tic teach­ers and there are many, many fan­tas­tic kids, but it has been spotty be­cause the lead­er­ship has been spotty.”

Ed­ward Joyner, now a mem­ber of the New Haven Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Comer pro­gram , which was im­ple­mented in five school dis­tricts in Con­necti­cut be­tween 1998 and 2003, ac­cord­ing to lit­er­a­ture from the Child Study Cen­ter.

Joyner said the Comer model taught that “be­yond aca­demic per­for­mance, char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment re­ally was in the best in­ter­ests of so­ci­ety. He thought that ev­ery kid had po­ten­tial. … He pushed back against the tra­di­tional no­tions of who would do well and who wouldn’t. … I would ar­gue that Dr. Comer has made the great­est con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­ica in terms of what is nec­es­sary to ed­u­cate poor chil­dren.”

Joyner said that to­day in New Haven, “I think there’s more lip ser­vice than use,” although he said Davis Street, Jackie Robin­son (now King-Robin­son), Lin­coln Bas­sett and Clin­ton Av­enue schools have shown suc­cess. “I think there are pock­ets of ex­cel­lence but what we had done in the ’90s is we wanted to re­form the en­tire sys­tem, top-down, bot­tomup.”

How­ever, Wil­liam Clark, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the New Haven Pub­lic Schools, said the Comer model is in­te­gral to how the sys­tem op­er­ates. “I think it re­ally has been … a cor­ner­stone el­e­ment of how we view ed­u­ca­tion in New Haven and how we look at the whole child and how we look at the whole com­mu­nity that’s in­volved in the ed­u­ca­tion of our youth,” he said.

“There’s dif­fer­ent takes or an­gles on what Dr. Comer and his group put in place 50 years ago. … The cor­ner­stone ba­sics are still mak­ing the school en­vi­ron­ment safe. If you don’t have those sys­tems … in place it makes the climb that much steeper. Although we’ve had other part­ners along the way, the con­stant has been the Comer model.

“It’s those tenets and those core prin­ci­ples you find your­self com­ing back to,” Clark said. “When you put those pieces in place you have an en­vi­ron­ment that is con­ducive to learn­ing. It re­mains in­spi­ra­tional and a guide­post and some­thing we keep go­ing back and back and back to.”

Arnold Gold / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Dr. James Comer, of the Yale Child Study Cen­ter, holds an old photo taken with stu­dents at the for­mer Martin Luther King Jr. El­e­men­tary School in New Haven.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Dr. James Comer, of the Yale Child Study Cen­ter, in front of a print of the painting “From Whence We Came” by Jerry and Terry Lynn at the Yale Child Study Cen­ter in New Haven on Oct. 29.

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