pathways of enlightenment

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It’s 9:30 in the morning at Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut, and Gail DeBlasio is starting her sixth-graders’ morning. She gathers the class in a circle and talks to them quietly about what’s on the day’s agenda. Then she asks kids to share. Five students every day. They know who they are and when their day is, and they know the rules. You have to talk about yourself—not about something you saw on TV or read in a book. Each kid talks for a couple of minutes. Then it’s time to address problems and concerns. Family issues, playground spats, disagreements with friends—it’s all fodder for discussion.

By 10 o’clock the students are ready to begin learning. Kids do better when their minds are cleared, DeBlasio says.

Down the hall, Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins begins her third-graders’ day by asking what’s up. Their language skills may not be as advanced as DeBlasio’s sixth-graders, but they know the drill. One day last fall a girl said she was being teased. The class talked it over, and the boy who was doing the teasing apologized, and the two patched things up.

Children aren’t statistics, says Kirkland-Mullins. They’re human beings “who have feelings, who need to be nurtured, who need to be met where they are developmentally.”

DeBlasio and Kirkland-Mullins are rarities in the American school system. They teach in a school where the focus is not just on cognitive learning but on the overall development of children—a “Comer school.” The term is shorthand for a research-based, comprehensive K-12 education-reform program pioneered by Yale child psychiatrist James P. Comer. Since its introduction in 1968 in two low-achieving schools in New Haven, Comer’s program has been implemented in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia as well as overseas.

Step into a school like Davis Street, and you feel the difference. Kids walk peacefully through the halls. Teachers are affectionate. There are signs on the walls reminding everyone to respect one another. And it’s not just window dressing—the good feelings generated inside Davis Street, as in other Comer schools, translate into higher-than-average scores on standardized tests.

DeBlasio thinks her kids perform better because they aren’t afraid of failure. “They know they’re going to be built up by the rest of the class and not be humiliated.” That’s how the Comer process works. Years after they leave Davis Street, students tell DeBlasio and Kirkland-Mullins how much they miss the school and how grateful they are for what it gave them.

Of the man behind the Comer process, Kirkland-Mullins says quietly, “I’m blessed to have known him in his lifetime.”

James ComerSeventy-five years old, dapper and compact, James P. Comer, MD, MPH ’64, has a way of smiling that lights up his whole face. It’s easy to imagine children warming to him. He is courteous and soft-spoken, a gentle man in every sense of the word. In an era of T-shirts and casual Fridays, he wears neatly pressed suits and ties, and he insists on holding the door open for others.

Although he’s reached an age when he could be spending his time traveling or listening to jazz or visiting with his grandchildren, most days Comer goes to work. He’s the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, and from his book-lined office on the second floor of the Yale Child Study Center he oversees the dissemination and implementation of the school-reform program he’s spent a lifetime refining.

It’s a big operation. Besides the many staff members who work directly on the program at Yale, nearly a dozen schools and school districts across the country currently use Comer’s School Development Program (SDP), as it’s officially known. Comer and his staff also collaborate with universities, state departments of education, and regional training centers.

Perhaps the best way to understand SDP is to think of it as a multifaceted intervention aimed at preventing the social, physical, and psychological problems that can arise when children don’t get the right start in life. Where traditional school programs focus primarily on cognitive development, SDP guides children along six connected developmental pathways: physical, psychological, social, ethical, linguistic, and cognitive (see sidebar, page 19). The program is especially well suited to low-income kids in urban schools, but it also works in rural and suburban settings. Its core principles are collaboration, consensus, team-building, and no-fault problem-solving.

The program’s underlying assumption is that the way kids develop as social beings—how they deal with personal problems and interact with others—has everything to do with how they perform in school. This is a lesson Comer first learned 70 years ago from his mother and father.

He has written at length about both parents—most memorably his mother, whose story is the subject of Comer’s 1988 book, Maggie’s American Dream, a work Henry Louis Gates Jr. says “has helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students understand the sacrifices and motivations of an earlier generation, the importance of education, and the crucial role played by family and community in achieving that education.” Born into a family of Mississippi sharecroppers, Maggie Comer finished just two years of formal schooling and made her living as a domestic in East Chicago, Indiana. She believed education was the key to a better life, and she passed that insight on to her children—as did her husband, a steelworker and descendant of slaves who had fewer than eight years of schooling himself.

The family’s income may have been low, but expectations were high. Between them, James and his four brothers and sisters would earn 13 advanced degrees.

“We were poor but we weren’t really that poor,” Comer says today. “We had a very rich home and church and community experience.” Hugh and Maggie Comer took their kids to museums and the zoo. They encouraged spirited conversations around the dinner table.

Such things made a difference, Comer saw. Boyhood friends who were just as bright as he was, who played in the same East Chicago neighborhoods and attended the same schools, later succumbed to depression, drugs, and crime. Why did they sink while he thrived? And what could he do to help prevent other young men and women from going downhill?

His first instinct was to become a doctor, but while getting his MD from Howard University in 1960, Comer came to realize he was more of a “social-problem person” than a physician. One of his teachers at Howard, Paul Cornely, a three-time graduate of the University of Michigan (AB ’28, MD ’31, DPH ’34), with a doctorate from the School of Public Health, pointed out to him that public health and prevention had done more to improve human health than “the entire medical profession. I think I resented that remark as a soon-to-be-physician,” Comer has written, “but I remembered his claim.”

Keen to know more, he enrolled in Cornely’s alma mater. “In a way,” Comer admits, “going to Michigan was buying time, but it was also a way to learn about prevention.” He and his wife and infant son arrived in Ann Arbor in August 1963, two days before Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. Comer listened to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the radio while unpacking boxes. “You tell ’em, Martin!” he cheered. The following spring Lyndon Johnson gave the commencement address at Michigan. The new president called on Comer and his fellow graduates to use their skills and knowledge to help build a “great society” for all Americans, and Comer was riveted.

“I had already decided I needed to know more about people,” he remembers. But it was Johnson’s charge to “do something” that really fired him up. A year later Comer embarked on a residency program in psychiatry at Yale Medical School, and in 1968 he joined the faculty of the Yale Child Study Center. His task: To spearhead a new initiative bridging child psychiatry and education.

During his year at Michigan, Comer had learned valuable organizational and management skills. He’d studied epidemiology and environmental ecology and become fascinated by the parallels between these and what he called “human ecology, the study of how policies and institutions interact with families and children.” He’d written a term paper in which he argued that schools were the only organizations strategically positioned to help all children grow—and to compensate for the difficult conditions that too often interfere with their growth.

Schools, in other words, were vital to the public’s health. It was a melding of his disparate interests and the first major step toward what would become his life’s work. To this day, Comer says he thinks of himself not as an educator but as “a public health physician—a child psychiatrist who practices prevention.”

At Yale, Comer and his colleagues at the Child Study Center were asked to develop a strategy for turning around two of New Haven’s most troubled elementary schools, Simeon Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. The two schools were predominantly African-American and low-income and had the worst attendance records and standardized-test scores in the city. At Baldwin, Comer found playgrounds strewn with glass and kids running wild in the halls. One teacher grabbed him by the arm and cried, “Help me! Help me!” King was only slightly better.

“We had to overcome deep-seated distrust and limited relationship skills among all involved,” Comer recalls. Slowly, painstakingly, he and his colleagues worked with faculty, staff, parents, social workers, and psychologists from the two schools to map out a holistic process of educational reform that could address the schools’ problems.

They called their initiative the School Development Program. Central to the program were relationships—among teachers and children, parents and teachers, staff and community, kids and their peers. “When relationships improve in the schools,” Comer would write, “the children themselves become the carriers of desirable values.”

In effect, SDP sought to replicate the close-knit support system Comer had enjoyed as a boy growing up in East Chicago. “This is Comer’s great achievement,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. has said. “To realize that the public school is just another aspect of child development and that the learning process is infinitely more complex than amassing a body of facts outside of this self-reinforcing network of nurture, psychological support, concern, care, affection, ego gratification, and mentorship. Schools are an extension of the family structure.”

Through SDP, Baldwin and King each set up a governance and management team headed by the school principal and composed of teachers, staff, and parents. Each school instituted a mental-health team, a parents’ program, teaching programs, and a curriculum based not just on cognitive learning but on the six interlinked pathways of childhood development.

Things began to change. One day at the start of the fourth year of the program, someone stepped on the foot of a transfer student at King, and the student put up his fists to fight. A classmate intervened.

“Hey man,” he said, “we don’t do that in this school.”

Five years into the project, as part of a neighborhood rehabilitation effort, the school district closed a much-improved Baldwin, and a similar low-income, low-achieving school, Katherine Brennan, took its place in the program. By 1978, attendance at both Brennan and King had risen, serious behavior problems had all but vanished, and reading and math scores on standardized achievement tests were soaring. Follow-up studies would show that three years after the Yale team left the schools, kids who’d attended either Brennan or King were two years ahead of their peers in language arts and more than a year ahead in math.

It was the breakthrough Comer had dreamt about as a young man. In the next decades, he and his colleagues would hone their methodology and, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and other sources, disseminate SDP to hundreds of schools and school districts at home and abroad. Time and again, their prevention-based program changed lives and boosted academic performance.

Comer himself began publishing books (nine by 2005) and contributing a monthly column to Parents magazine. He became a consultant to the Children’s Television Network, producer of Sesame Street. Honorary degrees and awards piled up, among them the UM SPH Alumni Society’s John H. Romani Award. President Bill Clinton reportedly considered Comer for Secretary of Education.

In 2002, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison conducted a meta-analysis of the 29 most widely used comprehensive school-reform programs in the U.S. The researchers found that of the 29, only three programs could be expected to improve students’ test scores. One of those was SDP.

Today Comer is working to persuade federal and state policymakers to implement SDP in schools and school districts throughout the U.S. Doing so, he knows, will require changes in the way teachers are trained, changes in the way schools of education are run, and changes in the way beginning teachers are supervised—but scores of schools and school districts have proven that SDP works, and Comer is determined to push for its widespread adoption.

“I feel like I have the cure for cancer,” he says.

A life-long football fan, he insists he’d rather have time run out on him on the two yard line than on the 50. “You never know where the miracle is going to come from.”

Back at the Davis Street Magnet School in New Haven, Gail DeBlasio is talking to her students about how the Comer process has helped them this year. Hands waggle in the air.

“I’ve seen more behavior, less calling out,” a girl volunteers.

A classmate chimes in. “I was on the out a lot this year, because I used to be getting into a lot of trouble, but then when I learned the Comer pathways I kind of changed a little.”

Pressed to explain how he’s changed, the boy says, “I learned to think before I act.”

DeBlasio reminds her students that what they’re doing is an important part of learning to be good friends and responsible citizens. As the discussion winds down, she gently steers the children back to their desks, and they plunge into a quiet session of reading. Later that afternoon, she’ll post their most recent standardized test scores on an overhead projector. Once again, her kids have matched—and in some cases exceeded—statewide averages, and DeBlasio wants them to be proud.

What amazes her is that every school in America isn’t a Comer school. If it were, she believes, the country would be a different and much better place. “At some point,” she says, “we have to break the mold.”

Comer’s Career at a Glance

  • 1964 – Graduates from UM SPH with an MPH
  • 1967 – Joins the faculty at the Yale Center for the Child
  • 1968 – Embarks on a school-reform initiative in New Haven that will become known as the School Development Program (SDP)
  • 1972 – Publishes Beyond Black and White
  • 1978 – Begins writing a monthly column for Parents magazine
  • 1980 – Publishes School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project
  • 1988 – Publishes Maggie’s American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family
  • 1992 – Is said to be on the short list for U.S. Secretary of Education
  • 1993 – Bill Cosby speaks at the 25th anniversary celebration of SDP
  • 1997 – Publishes Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can’t Solve Our Problems, and How We Can
  • 1998 – Hillary Clinton speaks at the 30th anniversary celebration of SDP
  • 2004 – Publishes Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s World
  • 2009 – Receives the John H. Romani Award from UM SPH.

By Leslie Stainton

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