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Educator’s Methods Now Getting Straight A’s : Schools: The ‘Comer process’ aims for a caring environment, focusing on students’ growth and development. It also seeks to get parents involved.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Yale psychiatrist James P. Comer started trying out his educational ideas in two of New Haven’s most troubled inner-city schools in 1968, initial signs were not encouraging.

Teachers and administrators began the experiment with high hopes, but soon were squabbling over apparent failures. Parents grew so angry that they planned a protest march. And in the classrooms, children were confused and uncontrollable.

But 15 years later, students in these two elementary schools, which had previously ranked at the very bottom of New Haven’s 33 schools, were showing the third and fourth highest achievement levels, and their attendance rates were the city’s best. What seems to have made the difference is the solid link that had been forged between home and school--the most important forces in a student’s life.

These days, the method that has become known as the “Comer process” is standard procedure in New Haven schools, and has been adopted since 1984 by more than 70 schools in nine systems. Last January, the Rockefeller Foundation pledged $15 million over five years to expand Comer’s program.

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His idea sounds simple enough: Get parents, teachers and administrators to agree on a set of goals, and how to work toward them. Comer also establishes a mental health team of social workers, counselors, school nurses and others to deal with the social and emotional problems that children bring to school.

“That’s all this is,” Comer says. “This is common sense.”

While Comer’s process is not the cure for all the ills of urban schools, those who have tried it say it is one of their best hopes.

“I see a big difference in our school climate. The kids seem to walk a little taller,” said Jan Stocklinski, supervisor of the Comer Process for Prince George’s County in Maryland.

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“We’re getting calls from all over,” she added. “Last week, we got a call from Arizona asking us to bring a parent and teacher out there.” Stocklinski recently met with a team of officials from San Diego’s Valencia Park Elementary School, the first school on the West Coast to adopt the Comer process. More than half of its 1,200 students come from families on welfare, and the school has suffered from a lack of parent involvement and high teacher turnover.

Principal Richard Cansdale said he expects to have the program in place by next year, and adds: “I’m convinced it’s going to help.”

“No matter how hard we were working, it just wasn’t meeting the needs of the kids,” said Patricia Carpio, principal of a Denver elementary school that is studying the Comer approach. " . . . We found out you can’t do what needs to be done in the school. It needs to be a shared responsibility and you don’t get people to share responsibility if you don’t give them a voice in what you are doing.”

But as Comer learned in those early, difficult years in the New Haven school system, schools must first bridge the gap between what a child experiences at home and what is expected in class. Particularly in disadvantaged homes, parents--who often did not do well in school--are likely to feel disengaged and hostile toward the school. When their children fail, it further increases their alienation.

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The 1960s were a time when other educational experts were touting open classrooms and less formality, but Comer put more structure into running a school.

He set up in each school a “governance team” led by the principal, and including the elected representatives of parents, teachers, professional staff, and, in some cases, custodians. Its job was identifying the school’s needs, coming up with a plan to meet them and measuring the progress. The components of the plan may range from improving vocabulary skills, to boosting attendance, to organizing social events that will draw parents to the school.

Belinda Brown acknowledges that she was “very hostile” when she first visited her son’s third-grade classroom in Benton Harbor, Mich., to see why he was complaining. The teacher invited Brown to work with one particularly disruptive child who had fallen behind in math, reading and spelling. Now, the 30-year-old mother of three is on the school system payroll, working part-time at minimum wage--such positions being a standard feature in the Comer process.

Brown says the Comer process has given her “a burden to get other parents involved, because I see what happens when they don’t.”

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Mistrust and cynicism can exist on both sides, particularly in troubled schools that have been buffeted by one reform fad after another. “There were some schoolhouse people, I think, who were afraid that parents would take over everything. . . . There were parents who believed this would be a passing thing,” Stocklinski said.

In the economically depressed Benton Harbor area, the Comer process has had mixed reviews and produced uneven progress on achievement tests.

“If you looked at it generically as a school improvement plan, used all the components, followed the guidelines, it’s almost foolproof,” the official said. “But you generally have not had a strong commitment on the part of the principals. For a lot of people, it’s a pain.”

In some school districts, resistance has been so strong that Comer’s consultants have opted not to even try the program because they knew it would fail, said James Boger, coordinator of the Comer program at the Yale Child Study Center.

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Still, he said he has seen a marked rise in interest in the last few years.

“People are beginning to understand . . . that a student will not achieve unless he or she is in a warm and caring environment,” Boger said. “Schools are beginning to understand and appreciate that parents are the primary teachers.”

Comer draws many of his ideas on child development from his own experiences growing up in East Chicago, Ind., during the 1930s and 1940s. He recalls attending an integrated school with three other black youngsters, all of whom had similar backgrounds and abilities. One ended up in jail, another died of alcoholism and a third lived much of his life in mental institutions. Comer was graduated from medical school.

“Why did my life turn out better?” he has written. “I think it was largely because my parents, unlike those of my friends, gave me the social skills and confidence that enabled me to take advantage of educational opportunities.”

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If anything, he says, the disadvantages that black children face today are even larger. Most of the politically popular approaches to school reform in recent years have emphasized test scores, basic skills and teacher credentials--strategies that have been criticized for their failure to reach the poor and minority children of inner-city schools. Comer, who is associate dean of the Yale medical school and a child development expert, says that is because they miss the basic problem.

“We have focused on academic content and teaching methods, rather than growth and development,” he says. Where children in the traditional supportive homes of earlier generations were prepared for what would be expected of them in school, the youngsters growing up in poor, single-parent homes “go to school and present themselves differently.”

To deal with these differences, Comer added another component to school management--a team that focuses on mental health. This group meets weekly to discuss problems and assigns one of its members to work with students who need help.


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