“Comer” Is Back

DSCN5445.JPGOne girl talked about the gunshots she hears every night. The next girl talked about the way she sneezes — and Gail DeBlasio’s class was on its way to better test scores.

That’s one way, at least, of looking at the routine yet remarkable progress taking place in DeBlasio’s classroom at Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School.

Perched on a kid-sized chair, surrounded by 18 sixth-graders in a circle on the floor, DeBlasio conducted “morning meeting” in her second-floor classroom last Wednesday.

Two students named N’ya and Rhianna told the group how they resolved a dispute developing among them and a third girl in the class. N’ya was feeling left out when Rhianna, her buddy, was becoming friendlier with the third girl.

“When you don’t talk about it, it starts to get bigger,” N’ya observed. “[People] misinterpret what you do.”

“So how do you resolve it?” DeBlasio asked them.

“We didn’t really say anything,” N’ya said. “We just stopped being mad at each other. We let it go.”

Rhianna offered more details. She spoke of how when the conflict started, she decided to make sure to give equal attention to both her friends.

“Either I can be friends with two people or I can’t be friends with either of you, because I’m not going to choose,” Rhianna said, staring at her sneakers as she spoke. “I want to be friends with both of you.”

DeBlasio has conducted similar meetings — part of a broader approach to public education known as the “Comer Method” — throughout her 19 years as a Davis teacher, as the technique has swung in and out of fashion.

As New Haven embarks on an ambitious school reform drive, Davis Street has already enjoyed some of the successes the system hopes to replicate. As Davis inhabits temporary “swing” space on Legion Avenue while its Westville home is rebuilt, the Independent is checking in on the school throughout this year for a closer look at what it does right.

It turns out, at least in Gail DeBlasio’s classroom, part of the successful formula may involve not just new No Child Left Behind-inspired ideas focused on test scores or teacher recruitment, but rather an older idea about “social development.”

Last year DeBlasio began taking part in an experiment at Davis to incorporate more of the Comer technique into the school. DeBlasio and another fifth-grade teacher held the meetings every morning. Now they’re working with the same kids a year later in sixth grade, continuing the meetings and eventually training the students to run them themselves.

Davis’s then-fifth graders posted some of New Haven’s most impressive gains on the standard Connecticut Mastery Test last year: 92.9 percent scored at or above proficiency in math — compared to 85.9 percent statewide, and 67 percent systemwide in New Haven. 95.3 percent scored at or above proficiency and 81.4 percent “at or above goal.” That compared to 86.4 and 66.6 percent statewide; 68.9 and 39.4 percent citywide.

A number of efforts contributed to those scores. DeBlasio is convinced that morning meetings played an important part. The meetings practically eliminated behavior problems in her classroom. They focused students on learning and on thinking creatively.

Her students often bring tougher experiences to school with them than do many of their suburban counterparts, DeBlasio observed. They need a few minutes to talk about that before tackling reading or science or math.

“If you don’t attend to that, if you don’t give children a voice, an opportunity to get that off their chest … it’s going to get in the way of learning,” DeBlasio said. “It will impact their education”

Pendulum Swings Back

cojamesmer.jpg“Comer” is shorthand for James Comer (pictured), a Yale child psychologist.

“Comer Method” is shorthand for the groundbreaking ideas Comer started developing in the 1960s. He studied how children learn. He had insights into how young children and adolescents develop as “social” beings — deal with their personal problems, interact with other people — tied into how they perform in school. Low-income black kids in cities especially need support in “social development” to do better in school. He charted how parents and teachers need to work together to help them. He laid out six connected developmental “pathways” along which the school system needs to guide children.

Comer’s School Development Program got its real-life start in New Haven’s Baldwin, King and Brennan schools in the 1960s. It went national, then international. More than 1,000 schools around country in over 50 school districts have been using the method at any one time. Its uses ranged from programs dealing directly with children in the classroom to the formation of school-based parent-teacher management teams.

But New Haven schools started relying on the Comer method less and less. Especially since the turn of the century, when the No Child Left Behind Act pressured administrators and teachers to spend every available minute drilling students to achieve higher scores on standardized tests. Schools had no time left for recess, let alone “Comer” meetings. The school system’s school development staff shrank from 25 to six. There has been less money to send teachers to “Comer” training.

According to New Haven schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo, that’s changing.

“Comer is back,” declared Mayo, who said he has been a believer in the method since his days as a middle-school principal.

Mayo has met with Comer himself over the past two years to reintroduce the method in city schools. Eight schools, including Davis, have been working with Comer’s team from the Yale Child Study Center on social development.

It turns out that positing the Comer method against academic achievement may be a false choice; according to Mayo, students’ standardized test scores appear to rise somewhat higher so far in schools where the method is being reintroduced.

Instant Acolyte

Gail DeBlasio never stopped using the Comer method. She became a believer as soon as she left her job as a social worker in the court system to teach at Lincoln Bassett School. She was sent to one of those Comer training sessions and took to the philosophy immediately.

She has spent her last 17 years at Davis working under a principal, Lola Nathan, who is also wed to the Comer philosophy. Nathan, too, believes that you can’t separate social development from academics.

“Not only does Gail bring the Comer model into the classroom, but in every aspect of what she does in the classroom,” observed Fay E. Brown. Brown, a Yale Child Study Center program director, oversees current efforts to reemphasize the Comer method in city schools. She has worked with Nathan and DeBlasio for more than a decade. She said she considers them, and their school, a model.

The morning meeting in DeBlasio’s classroom this past Wednesday offered a glimpse into how the method enlists students to air their feelings, support each other, and discuss solutions.

The children were remarkably calm for sixth-graders — or for adults — as they sat in the circle for 15 minutes. They took turns talking. They didn’t interrupt. They spoke quietly, thoughtfully, in complete sentences.

Four weeks into school, the kids know the drill. All of them already have a year of morning meetings under their belts, from fifth grade.

DeBlasio began by asking students to “share” “concerns” they had about experiences outside the class. One girl spoke about all the gunshots she hears from outside her home in Newhallville. She hears them every day. She lost a relative to a bullet.

The girl spoke in a matter-of-fact voice. She said it not longer upset her. It’s a fact of life.

It was clear to anyone watching that it does upset her, just by the fact that she brought it up. One point of the “sharing” portion of morning meeting is to allow students to get nerves or fears or anger off their chest before they settle down to learn.

No one else had words to add about the gunshots. So a girl in pigtails talked about an accident on a neighborhood playground slide the day before; her cousin fell off and lost a tooth. She has another cousin in the hospital with a virus.

Mehkai, a particularly thoughtful boy (who starred in a Comer-produced video last year about DeBlasio’s class), mentioned that he can’t play outside because he had an asthma attack.

Next DeBlasio initiated the classroom-problems portion of the meeting. Rhianna reported that a problem fixed in last year’s classroom has resurfaced this year. A problem involving her.

“When I sneeze,” she said,” a lot of people make fun of me.” She recalled that that happened last year until the class discussed it in morning meeting. This year some of the students came from the other fifth-grade class, and the teasing has resumed.

What should we do about it? DeBlasio asked the class after Rhianna finished.

Mekhai was the first to raise his hand.

“If Rhianna sneezes that way, she sneezes that way,” he reasoned. “Other people cough or hiccup or other things funny, too. But would you want other people laughing at you when you do it?”

A girl named Briana suggested that students who teased Rhianna write her an apology. Rhianna said she doesn’t know who had been laughing at her; no one admitted to it. DeBlasio said they should “take responsibility for their actions … That’s an important part of learning, you know? We all make mistakes. It’s really important to acknowledge them” and learn from them.”

No takers. DeBlasio tried another tack.

“I’m going to ask those people who have been laughing and making fun to think” before doing it again, she said. “Can we agree on that?” The kids agreed. Then they spoke about how they’ll make sure to admonish anyone sitting next to them who laughs at Rhianna.

A discussion followed about a note passed around class the day before. It was a profane riff on a popular song lyric. A girl in pigtails owned up to having written the note. At first, she blamed some of the students for continuing to pass it around the class until the teacher discovered it. Eventually she acknowledged that she shouldn’t have written the note in the first place.

Then came the discussion about the three-way friendship dispute, and a closing reprise of the story of the girl hearing daily gunshots. It’s no big deal, the student repeated.

DSCN5487.JPGAs the students returned to their desks, they plunged into a quiet book-reading session. Stepping outside the room, DeBlasio (pictured at a school-wide assembly Friday) produced a computer print-out detailing the class’s impressive performance on the standardized tests. She’d just gotten the numbers; Principal Nathan gives each teacher breakdowns of their students’ scores. The teachers use the results and other data to develop individualized plans to how work with students and their parents to improve this year.

DeBlasio planned to put the results on an overhead projector in the classroom to show her kids.

“I want them to know how well they did,” she said. “And I want them to know I’m not going to let them slide.”

Previous stories about Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School:

Principal Keeps School On The Move
Pot Melts
So Long, Old Davis
Music History Steps Offstage

Some previous stories about New Haven’s school reform drive:

Wanted: Great Teachers
“Class of 2026” Gets Started
Principal Keeps School On The Move
With National Push, Reform Talks Advance
Nice New School! Now Do Your Homework
Mayo Unveils Discipline Plan
Mayor Launches “School Change” Campaign
Reform Drive Snags “New Teacher” Team
Can He Work School Reform Magic?
Some Parental Non-Involvement Is OK, Too
Mayor: Close Failing Schools
Union Chief: Don’t Blame The Teachers
3-Tiered School Reform Comes Into Focus
At NAACP, Mayo Outlines School Reform
Post Created To Bring In School Reform
Board of Ed Assembles Legal Team

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posted by: mary on September 28, 2009  12:18pm

Yes Comers teaching is a great tool for a classroom,it allows teachers to really understand a child to know where they are coming from and how to help them.good job to bring his methods back!!!!!!!

posted by: highschool on September 28, 2009  4:25pm

Doesn’t work if the principal is a micromanager.

posted by: streever on September 29, 2009  1:28pm

Doesn’t work if the teacher is 9 foot tall and breathes fire. (Seriously Highschool, & everyone else, what motivates the asinine & irrelevant comments on these stories?)

This is an inspiring story—DeBlasio sounds like an excellent teacher. Thanks for doing such a good job, and I’m glad you have a supportive principal!

posted by: sjbj on October 1, 2009  10:38am

FYI, Dr. Comer is a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.

posted by: Jan Stocklinski on October 3, 2009  10:52am

Thank you for sharing this inspiring story about an awesome teacher and about sharing one of the most powerful School Reform models out there. 
    I am National Staff (live out of the area) and have been working with SDP for 24 years.  Too often the model is misunderstood.  It is seen as too warm and fuzzy - it is NOT that at all.  An early quote by Dr. Comer has always stayed with me and is a response/agreement to Dr. Mayo’s comment about academic vs. social.
  “Where there is a good climate of relationships, you can accomplish the business of socializing students and making academic gains at the same time.  One need not interfere with the other.”
    What some people find difficult to grasp is that the most effective teachers understand (and plan accordingly) the direct connection/correlation between curriculum, instruction, relationships and child/adolescent development.  All must be in place for students to be able to learn and to grow well in school.
  Morning Meetings are a very good way to help children grown and develop through all six pathways and to build respectful relationships in classrooms. 
    We also encourage staff to plan their lessons/units with all pathways in mind.  A school we work with in Lexington, NC has the students stand and deliver with a microphone when they speak to the entire class.  This has helped children develop their language pathway, their social pathway, their psychological pathway and gives them some physical movement - the physical pathway- something that is much needed in most classrooms and schools. 
(I can not imagine a school staff that had to sit still as long as we require some students to sit and learn without movement…)
This school encourages their students to answer in complete sentences (language pathway).  They encourage the students to celebrate one another’s success (psychological, physical and social pathways).  I could go on - one must see the school to believe it is possible.
    Again, thank you for writing this article.

Jan Stocklinski Doyon