Improving the educational experience of low income students by building supportive bonds among children, parents, and school staff

Dimensions: Empowering School Culture and Social Structure

Title and Location:

Edward T. Joyner, Ed.D.
Executive Director
Comer School Development Program
Yale Child Study Center
New Haven, Connecticut.

Contact Information:

Beverly Crowther
Comer School Development Program
55 College Street
New Haven, CT 06510
Phone: (203) 737-1020
FAX: (203) 737-1023
E-mail: beverly.crowther@yale.edu

The School Development Program has developed a series of how-to videotapes entitled For Children's Sake: The Comer School Development Program and an accompanying manual. They also publish a quarterly newsletter, the SDP Newsline.

Visit Comer Web Page

Abstract

The Comer School Development Program, also known as the Comer Process or the Comer Model, was developed to improve the educational experience of poor ethnic minority youth by improving school climate through a collaborative, consensus-building, no fault approach to problem solving between parents and school staff. The nine component process model includes three mechanisms (a School Planning and Management Team; a Student and Staff Support Team, formerly known as the mental health team; and a Parents' Team); three operations (a comprehensive school plan, staff development activities, and ongoing assessment); and three guiding principles (a no-fault attitude toward solving problems, decision-making by consensus, and collaborative participation that does not paralyze the principal). Initially developed by James Comer and the Child Study Center of Yale University in 1968, the program is now being implemented in over 563 schools in 21 states. Studies of selected SDP schools in three cities (New Haven, Benton Harbor, and Norfolk) showed significant student gains in achievement, attendance, behavior, and overall adjustment in SDP schools. Comer and his colleagues believe that improving school climate is the key to school improvement.

Program History and Description

Developed in 1968 by James Comer, a child psychiatrist at the Child Study Center of Yale University, the Comer School Development Program is based on Comer's belief that "the relationship between school and family is at the heart of a poor child's success or lack of it" (Goldberg, 1990). In his book School Power (1980), Comer describes the dissolution of the communal bonds that once united poor communities and bound them to the educational institutions that served them, resulting in the loss of adult power to influence children. Through initial empirical work in the New Haven public schools, Comer and his colleagues developed a process to reconnect schools and their communities and redistribute power in decision-making between parents and school staff in order to improve students' overall development and academic achievement.

The program began in two poor, predominately African American elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut, with low standardized test scores and high teacher and student absenteeism. Comer and his colleagues developed an organizational and management system based on child development issues that would encourage teachers, administrators, and parents to collaborate to address children's needs (Comer, Haynes, Joyner, & Ben-Avie, 1996).

The program was field-tested from 1978 to 1987 in additional schools in New Haven and in three other school districts: Prince George's County, Maryland, Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Norfolk, Virginia. Beginning in 1988, the dissemination phase emphasized partnerships between teacher-training institutions and local school districts in New Orleans, Cleveland, and San Francisco, as well as the establishment of Regional Professional Development Centers. From 1990 until 1995 the number of participating schools in the School Development Program grew from 70 to 563 (including 85 middle schools and 45 high schools).

Program Components

Primary Goals

The goal of the Comer School Development Program, also known as the Comer Process or Comer Model, is to improve the educational experience of poor ethnic minority youth by building supportive bonds among children, parents, and school staff that promote a positive school climate. As Comer states it, "In every interaction you are either building community or breaking community. The mechanisms. . . . are secondary" (Comer et al., 1996, p. 148). To accomplish this, the model advocates a collaborative, consensus-building, no-fault approach to problem solving (Ramirez-Smith, 1995).

In each participating school, a planning and management group is formed consisting of nine components: three mechanisms (a School Planning and Management Team; a Student and Staff Support Team, formerly known as the mental health team; and a Parents' Team); three operations (a comprehensive school plan, staff development activities, and ongoing assessment); and three guiding principles (a no-fault attitude toward solving problems, decision-making by consensus, and collaborative participation that does not paralyze the principal) (Comer et al., 1996).

Instructional Strategies and Materials

The School Development Program is not essentially a program of curriculum or pedagogy (Payne, 1991). Each participating school determines its own instructional strategies. The original Comer schools in New Haven, however, stressed the achievement of basic skills through traditional methods (Ascher, 1993). In addition, a specific social skills curriculum was developed by the Yale team, in conjunction with New Haven teachers, to "teach inner-city students how to be effective participants in society." The curriculum focused on teaching students to relate to others in a mutually caring way, develop social amenities, and learn the skills necessary to deal successfully with social institutions such as banking, the political process, and securing employment (Comer, Haynes, & Hamilton-Lee, 1987/88, p. 196).

Participants

The program was originally developed in poor, urban, largely African American elementary schools. Replication has included expanding the program to middle schools and high schools, and some predominately Latino schools as well.

Staff Development

School staff interested in implementing the School Development Program were originally trained directly by the SDP staff located at the Yale Child Study Center. Now following a "training the trainers" model, school and district representatives are trained in two sessions (May and February) at the SDP headquarters and expected to go back to their home districts and conduct local training sessions with participating schools.

Staff development activities in each participating school are based on the training needs that stem from the Comprehensive School Plan. Some examples cited in Comer et al. (1996) include periodic workshops for teachers and parents based on program objectives at the building level, workshops to provide teachers with skills "proven to be most effective in working with underdeveloped student populations," and integrating academic, arts, social, and extracurricular activities into a unified curriculum (p. 14).

Program Success

Student Achievement

Studies in New Haven, Benton Harbor, and Norfolk in which students in SDP schools were compared to students in matched non-SDP schools on achievement, attendance, behavior, self-concept, perceptions of school and classroom climate, and social competence showed significant student gains in achievement, attendance, behavior, and overall adjustment in SDP schools (Haynes & Comer, 1990; Haynes, Comer, & Hamilton-Lee, 1989a, 1989b).

A six-year longitudinal plan to monitor the implementation of the School Development Program in three districts (District #13 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Haven) was begun in 1994.

Program Attributes

Comer and his colleagues believe that improving school climate is the key to school improvement. The School Development Program's guiding principles of consensus, collaboration, and no-fault allow local expertise to emerge, encourage local variations in implementation, and provide school staff and parents with practical experience in modeling community building.

Qualitative analyses of 130 interviews of parents, students, teachers, and principals from 10 SDP schools indicate: a) improved parental and community involvement, b) positive climate, c) increased team work, d) greater focus on child centered issues, and e) greater top-down and bottom-up management.

Additional Benefits

Although focused on revitalizing schools, Comer's vision includes making poor communities once again "so cohesive and their fabric, the people, so tightly interwoven in mutual respect and concern that, even in the face of the potentially deleterious effects of poverty, their integrity and strength are maintained" (Haynes & Comer, 1990, p. 108-109). There is some indication that the School Development Program may also have a positive effect on the surrounding community of some participating schools. Comer et al. (1996) report that some parents involved in the school governance team and volunteer activities in certain SDP schools were motivated to go back to school to obtain their high school equivalency diplomas or pursue meaningful work. Others went to college and obtained graduate degrees. Comer reports that teachers in some participating schools also expressed increased feelings of efficacy and satisfaction with their work.

Program Replication

In 1990 the Rockefeller Foundation granted a five-year, $15 million grant to aid national replication (Payne, 1991). Originally, any interested school could implement the model with technical assistance. In 1996, in response to research evidence, schools could not implement the full model without school district office support and the involvement of several schools in the same district (Comer et al., 1996).

The replication model includes the following phases:
1) Pre-orientation Phase: School personnel become acquainted with the model and decide if it will be implemented and who will be the major participants.
2) Orientation Phase: Initial training of school personnel and parents and the establishment of a governing board.
3) Transition Phase: Goals and objectives are established by the governance board with input from all participants. Plans are made for parent involvement and staff development.
4) Operation Phase: Plans are implemented for parent activities and staff development.
5) Institutionalization Phase: Outcomes are evaluated in terms of parent participation and student outcomes. (Ben-Avi, personal communication, 1996).

References

Ascher, C. (1993). Changing schools for urban students: The School Development Program, Accelerated Schools, and Success for All. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED355313).

Comer, J. P., Haynes, N. M., Joyner, E. T., & Ben-Avie, M. (1996). Rallying the whole village: The Comer process for reforming education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Comer, J. P., Haynes, N. M., & Hamilton-Lee, M. (1987/88). School power: A model for improving black achievement. The Urban League Review, 111&2), 187-200.

Comer, J. P. (1980). School power: Implications of an intervention project. London: Free Press.

Goldberg, M. F. (September 1990). Portrait of James P. Comer. Educational Leadership, 48(1), 40-42.

Haynes, N. M., & Comer, J. P. (1990). Helping black children succeed: The significance of some social factors. In K. Lomotey (Ed.), Going to school: The African-American experience. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Haynes, N.M., Comer, J. P., & Hamilton-Lee, M. (1989a). The effects of parental involvement on student performance. Educational and Psychological Research, 8(4), 291-299.

Haynes, N. M., Comer, J. P., & Hamilton-Lee, M. (1989b). School climate enhancement through parental involvement.

Journal of School Psychology, 27, 87-90.

Payne, C. (1991). The Comer intervention model and school reform in Chicago: Implications of two models of change. Urban Education, 26(1), 8-24.

Ramirez-Smith, C. (February 1995). Stopping the cycle of failure: The Comer model. Educational Leadership, 52(5), 14-19.