By Paul Bush
It wasn't the sort of record a principal could be proud of. With only 240 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, Ross Elementary School led the public schools in Topeka, Kan., with 62 suspensions. Most of the students lived within a short walk of school. But, said principal Marty Gies, "When I called parents, I'd feel this mistrust, a wall between us." That was 1992.
Today, Ross remains an urban school where teachers plug in an overhead projector and a computer -- only to have both go out. However, Ross sees fewer than 15 suspensions a year. It also leads the district in a new way -- while reading scores in most schools went up about two points, the Ross School scores jumped 13.
As for his contacts with parents, said Gies, "Now it's a feeling of working together."
Working together is at the core of a system -- known as the Comer School Development Process -- that Ross School adopted four years ago. The process centers on getting everyone who is involved in a child's education, especially parents, to work as a team.
"It really puts the focus on children and families," said Verdell Roberts, associate superintendent in the New Haven, Conn., district where the process was first developed.
The process owes its name to child psychiatrist James Comer, who in 1968 began helping two failing New Haven schools to improve. According to the Yale Child Study Center, also in New Haven, by 1980 academic performance at the schools surpassed the national average. A three-year follow-up study of 24 students showed that in reading and math they remained a year ahead of 24 students from non-Comer schools.
Today, the process is in use at more than 600 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The Ross School is a typical example of how it works. Principal Gies ceded most of his decision making to a group of teachers, administrators, staff and parents, called the School Planning and Management Team. Parents on a second team focused on getting as many parents involved as possible. The school's counselor, nurse and speech pathologist, along with a representative of the teachers, together began analyzing problems the children were having in school.
"What you do when you start a Comer school is get everybody involved in running the school," said Sara Cocolis, the Comer program coordinator for Topeka Public Schools. "Then you look at the total school picture to see where it might be weak, and you target those areas."
Children are the first to benefit from the resulting teamwork and from the concentrated attention, said Ross teacher Ruth Mott. "They know you care, and they're much more willing to do their best and they're able to do their best," she said.
Losing some of his administrative power hasn't bothered Gies. The returns in parental involvement and the improvements at the school are worth it, he said. "To me, it's the only way to run a school," Gies said.
In East Palo Alto, Calif., administrator Vera Clark said the Comer process gets adults to focus on children. "You can't get through a meeting without hearing someone say, 'But is that in the best interest of the children?'" she said. Five of the 10 schools in her mainly Hispanic and African-American district are using the Comer method.
One rule is that participants can't blame each other. "We focus on what's wrong, not who's wrong," said Lester Young, superintendent of Community School District 13 in central Brooklyn, N.Y. "That's a departure from how things are usually done in education. What you typically get is a lot of finger-pointing and bickering."
Young's district of 15,000 children and 24 schools has been using the Comer process for three years. It is seeing fewer suspensions and improved test scores as well.
In addition, said Young, fewer children are being referred to special education and more children are being moved out of it. In most cases special education should only be a temporary intervention, not a permanent one, he said. With its emphasis on helping children, the Comer process has gotten adults figuring out how to achieve that, Young said.
Like others implementing the Comer system, Young's district pays attention to children's "developmental pathways." Traditionally, schools have focused on children's academic, physical, and speech and language development. The Comer process adds their emotional, social and moral development. Children may get help in anger management, social problem solving or simply being respectful.
"Given the trouble we have in society, I'm a firm believer that Dr. Comer's emphasis on social competency is warranted," said Eilene Maret, who is helping implement the Comer process in five Seattle elementary schools.
The most important aspect of the Comer school development process may be its emphasis on parents. At Peck Elementary in Greensboro, N.C. -- an inner-city school where 80 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -- 200 to 300 parents came out for last November's reading night.
"I've been here 20 years, and I've never seen the parental involvement we've had in the last year or so," teacher MaryAnn Yarborough said.
Comer's Approach Rooted
James Comer saw his childhood friends trapped by poverty. In later years as a public health physician and a child psychiatrist, he wondered why they had traveled a downhill course, while he had succeeded. "My career was really in pursuit of an answer to that question," he said.
Comer, who created the Comer school development process, knew his parents had made a difference. "They were way ahead of their time as child rearers," he said. They had provided him support and direction in all areas.
In the late 1960s the Yale Child Development Center asked Comer to look into ways of helping children in several poor neighborhoods in New Haven, Conn. Over the next few years he formulated his system for getting all the adults involved in a child's education to provide support and direction as a team.
Today, Comer sees children in affluent communities plagued by the same
problems as his childhood friends. Referring to a recent news report, he
said, "Forty percent of kids using marijuana live in the city. Guess where
the other 60 percent live?"
Copyright ©1997 American News Service
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