Comer’s Conflict-Calming Comes Home

Melissa Bailey File PhotoOne of New Haven’s experimental school sites ditched a hot modern education-reform idea, an extra-long school day, and is bringing back an older idea—daily tough talks to help kids deal with trauma.

Starting next month, students will show up at the school, Brennan-Rogers in the West Rock neighborhood, 15 minutes early each day to take part in a new half-hour morning meeting that aims to help them solve disputes without getting into yelling matches, according to Principal Gail DeBlasio.

That’s the latest step planned for a school that has gone through several phases of American school reform. In an older phase in the 1960s, it was one of the first experimental sites of Yale psychiatrist James Comer’s so-called “Comer Method” of addressing kids’ social and emotional development in school. Now DeBlasio is bringing elements of that method back to the school as she writes the next chapter of a newer turnaround effort that began in 2010.

Before DeBlasio brought back Comer’s philosophy, this latest turnaround effort tried some other approaches.

Melissa Bailey PhotoTalizha Jones (pictured) returned from summer vacation after fourth grade that year to an unwelcome surprise at the school: Students would have to stay in class until 4:15 p.m. four days a week.

“I was very upset,” the now-14-year-old recalled. “I was asking my grandma if I could switch schools.”

At the time, Talizha was at ground zero for New Haven’s nascent school reform drive. Based on a landmark teachers contract that made work rules more flexible, New Haven in 2010 tapped Brennan-Rogers to become the city’s first in-house turnaround school, where the principal replaced two-thirds of teachers and imposed a longer school day.

The principal at the time, charged with overseeing the turnaround, was Karen Lott. Lott extended students’ day by an hour and 25 minutes –– then scrapped the longer day one year later when it didn’t work out. The experiment had exhausted students and teachers without making progress towards its goal: closing the achievement gap between her largely poor and minority students and their suburban peers. Based on lessons from that year, New Haven has redirected its energy toward creating more time not for students, but for teachers to help each other improve their craft.

Prompted in part by federal incentives to expand learning time for students, districts serving high-poverty populations are leaping into longer school days, without always embracing what research has found: Simply adding time is not enough to raise student performance. The extended time movement grew out of studies showing that students from well-off homes spend thousands hours more than low-income peers engaged in learning, often through after-school and summer activities.

The Brennan Rogers tells a cautionary tale of what can happen when a low-performing school rushes to add time to close that gap. It also reflects the latest focus of the expanded-time movement: making extra time for teachers to learn. Brennan-Rogers provides a look at a teacher collaboration experiment that is showing early promise –– and a case study for urban districts across the country looking for the best way to use extra time in school.

A Chain-Link Fence

Brennan-Rogers School, which serves 480 kids in pre-K through eighth grade, is perched amid three public housing projects in the isolated West Rock neighborhood. In 2010, the school sat amid hundreds of boarded-up apartments that were awaiting demolition. For a half-century until this May, a 10-foot chain-link fence separated the low-income neighborhood from the middle-class suburb of Hamden, so that families on the New Haven side had to take several circuitous bus rides to get to jobs or stores that were just down the street.

Talizha grew up in the Westville Manor public housing complex overlooking the school from a hill. While kids on the other side of the fence were taking piano lessons and visiting museums, she spent most of her after-school time hanging out at home.

Brennan-Rogers was the result of the K-2 Clarence Rogers School and the 3-8 Katherine Brennan School merging in 2010. Brennan, built in the 1950s to serve families in public housing, was one of three original test sites in the 1960s for the Comer School Development Program. Through the program, schools aim to replicate the out-of-school supports that middle-class kids get at home, but disadvantaged kids are often missing. The program includes morning meetings in which kids talk through difficult feelings in a supportive group setting.

Brennan, which ranked among the worst in the city in achievement, attendance and behavior, soared to the top of the city in attendance and achievement. After early success and Brennan and two other city schools, the method spread to over 1,000 schools in over 50 school districts in the U.S. and beyond, before being largely forgotten in the 2000s amid a new focus on high-stakes tests.

Brennan was also a test site in the 1960s for the “community school” effort in which schools stayed open nights and weekends for basketball tournaments and neighborhood events. By the 2009-10 academic year, that effort had long since vanished along with the federal funding that made it possible. Brennan-Rogers’ literacy rates were among the worst in the city: Only 12 percent of third graders reached state reading goals, compared with 57 percent statewide.

Student behavior was out of control back then. In 2009, a student was expelled for setting a girl’s hair on fire during class. Talizha, who had been there since kindergarten, said students would fight over little things. One day in elementary school, her classmate Malik Brown “snatched my paper, and I punched him,” Talizha said.

“Then I started choking her,” recalled Malik (at center in photo), now 13.

Talizha walked down the hill for school orientation in August 2010 to find everything had changed. Twenty-nine of 41 teachers were new. Kids had to wear uniforms. And the school day would run –– gulp –– nearly eight hours long.

Then-Principal Lott said she introduced the longer day because kids needed to catch up academically to their peers across the chain-link urban-suburban divide. By adding 85 minutes to the city’s six-and-a-half-hour day, which is close to the national average, Brennan-Rogers followed the lead of charter schools that have relied on extra time to boost test scores for poor, minority students.

While extended time was once associated mostly with charter schools like Amistad Academy in New Haven, Brennan-Rogers joined a wave of regular public schools extending learning beyond legal minimums. Over half a million American students, predominantly in urban areas, now attend public schools with extended learning time, with on average more than 200 extra hours per year.

Brennan-Rogers students began to attend school from 8:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. four days a week, with an early dismissal on Wednesdays. Much of the extra time went to enrichment activities like gardening and other student clubs and assemblies with student performances. Brennan-Rogers added 45 minutes a day for teacher collaboration while students were sent to art and gym. The school extended academic periods every day but Wednesday, when kids left between 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. while teachers stayed for training. The effort was funded by a federal grant to overhaul failing schools, which required them to expand learning time.

‘What Did We Do Wrong?’

Teachers were up for the challenge, said teacher Jennifer Dauphinais (pictured waving kids in from recess), who arrived in 2010. But students, who did not have advanced notice of the changes, felt punished.

“What did we do wrong?” her third-graders would ask her. “Where are all the people we liked? And why are you making us stay here forever?”

The end of the school day dragged. “You’d get to 2:30, 3 o’clock, and kids would be checked out,” Dauphinais said. “They really wanted to go home.”

Melissa Rhone (pictured), a fourth-grade teacher, joined the effort straight from college. Facing many new teachers, students tried to “test us,” she said. Rhone struggled so much with classroom management that she was flagged as a low-performer through New Haven’s new evaluation system, which meant she risked losing her job if she didn’t improve. The work was all-consuming, she said: She would go home, have dinner with her husband and reflect on the day. Then she would plan for the next day until it was time for bed.

“It was a tough first year,” she said. But she said she valued having more time with students to build relationships, especially “because lots of kids had just been abandoned by everybody they had known” at the school.

Talizha said the longer day was “horrible,” but her grandmother wouldn’t let her switch schools because Brennan-Rogers was convenient and her father had gone there.

Most parents didn’t favor the new schedule, according to Shenea Crimley (pictured), a mother who now works at the school as a teacher’s aide. Parents struggled to find child care when kids came home early on Wednesdays.

“I’m one of the very few that liked it,” Crimley said. Her kids, including one voracious reader, were in kindergarten, first and eighth grade at the time. She hoped the four longer days would accelerate their learning.

As the school year wore on, in March 2011, Principal Lott confessed to the school board that teachers were “fighting fatigue” from the longer day and a slew of new instructional initiatives.

Lott concluded the longer-day experiment wasn’t worth continuing. It had burned out students and teachers without significantly improving academic performance. The school was safer and more orderly, but test scores actually dropped. And the longer day had unexpected complications: While the teachers union had allowed teachers to work longer hours with extra pay, unions for support staff had not. That meant Lott had to stagger teacher’s aides’ schedules to cover classrooms. For the last 90 minutes of the day, no one staffed the front office because the secretary had finished her contractual workday. Teachers enjoyed the extra 45 minutes of collaboration, but that time was often cut short by walking kids to gym class. It felt rushed, Rhone recalled.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoLott proposed returning students to a traditional six-and-a-half-hour day. The change came partly due to bus schedules. It also followed Lott’s conclusion that extending the day in a turnaround school, amid other abrupt changes, is hard on kids –– harder than at a charter school, where families sign up for the longer day from the get-go. Instead of keeping kids in school longer, teachers needed to better utilize the time they already had, Lott decided. She drafted a new schedule addressing the staffing challenges and parental and student pushback that came with the longer student day, while retaining the component that seemed most promising: teacher collaboration. She proposed teachers show up early for an uninterrupted hour of collaboration every day — a schedule that had been tested at another experimental school across town, Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School, with encouraging results.

Teachers, who by union contract got a say in the changes, agreed with Lott’s conclusion. They voted, with a sense of relief, to return to the shorter day.

“When we were in it, we all embraced it,” Rhone said. “But when we were told the day would be shortened,” teachers decided “it was OK to pull back that extra time, because we were tired.”

Teacher-To-Teacher Time

For the past three years, teachers have met for an hour each morning without kids. Some days, they work with colleagues teaching the same grade to plan field trips or interdisciplinary projects on topics like slavery. Other days, they learn how to use iPads and Apple TVs. Teachers also comb through student data, help each other plan lessons and analyze how those lessons went.

Rhone said the extra time has helped her grow from a struggling teacher who risked getting fired to a mentor teacher with leadership roles in the school.

Though the day is shorter, instruction is more efficient, said sixth-grade teacher Tavares Bussey (pictured). “The kids are getting more out of it.”

The past two years, Brennan-Rogers has posted the highest gains in the district on state standardized tests. Student behavior has calmed down. Based on lessons from Brennan-Rogers, New Haven has shifted its focus to adding time for teachers instead of for kids.

“We’ve focused on making the time that we have already with kids more useful, more powerful,” Superintendent Garth Harries said. The latest teachers’ contract requires all schools to add 15 minutes a day for teacher collaboration time.

The Brennan-Rogers case reflects challenges faced by schools nationwide that are part of the federal turnaround grant program, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, which advocates for extended learning time. Federal authorities require those schools to add instructional time, but they often rush into the changes without enough advance planning, and they don’t add enough time for teacher collaboration and training.

Schools can overcome those challenges by taking a full year to plan their schedules thoughtfully, Davis argued. She contends that schools don’t need to abandon extra student time to create more time for teachers.

“It’s a shame that a district school that had moved in this direction is going backwards,” Davis said of Brennan-Rogers. A recent report by her organization found that expanded-time schools are most successful in boosting student achievement when students and teachers both get more time to learn.

Gail DeBlasio (pictured), who replaced Principal Lott last fall, said after spending three years focusing on helping teachers improve instruction, the school is now ready to introduce a modest increase to the length of the student day. (Lott left New Haven to help a charter organization take over a Hartford public school.) In September, Brennan-Rogers plans to add 15 minutes a day for students. Still, the focus won’t be on more academics. Instead, there will be a 30-minute morning meeting for kids to work on communication skills and conflict resolution.

DeBlasio, a longtime proponent of the Comer Method, has been conducting those morning meetings for years. Click on the video to watch one such meeting in DeBlasio’s Davis Street School classroom in 2009, in which kids discussed how to help a girl who is being teased for sneezing.


DeBlasio said the city’s academic requirements are so stringent that her staff doesn’t have time to teach the interpersonal skills that students “urgently need.” In the housing projects behind the school, a student’s 21-year-old brother was shot dead last October. Many other students are exposed to gun violence where they live. Students need a space to process trauma and learn to de-escalate conflict in their own lives, she argued.

“It’s going to be difficult to concentrate in class” while dealing with trauma and unresolved conflict, DeBlasio said. “We’re hoping this will have a significant impact.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Tags: , , , , ,

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on July 22, 2014  9:57am

Again, how does a school in the inner city function with a HALF TIME social worker? (Lincoln Bassett). How does that even happen? 

Kids need to learn to talk to EACH OTHER if we want happy communities.

posted by: Mary Brown on July 22, 2014  10:36am

It’s amazing that we now realize that suburban students get to take piano lessons and visit museums…Does this mean that NHPS is going to value the arts and provide more field trips to enrich students’ educational experiences? The Comer Method was always effective when consistently and appropriately implemented.

More is not always more when you extend the school day. They should stop punishing students and deal with the social ills that exist outside the school walls as well as within!

posted by: nsombi on July 24, 2014  10:15am

This article contains numerous inaccuracies and is quite dismissive of the actual hard work and progress made at Brennan Rogers during the turnaround efforts of 2010 - 2013.