Comer began movement to educate whole child in 1968

NEW HAVEN — Educating the whole child, paying attention to students’ social needs, personal development and family issues, is widely accepted as a part of public schools’ mission today.

Fifty years ago, that wasn’t the case. Then along came Dr. James Comer.

A psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center, he is internationally known for what is commonly called the “Comer model,” formally known as the Comer School Development Program. It began at the two lowest-performing schools in New Haven in 1968 and is now used in more than 1,000 schools worldwide.

Comer, still fine-tuning his program at 84, knew when he started that he was approaching the poor performance of New Haven’s schoolchildren as a physician, not an educator. But he drew heavily on his own life story.

“My father was from rural Alabama and had maybe a sixth-, seventh-grade education,” Comer said. “My mother was from rural Mississippi and, at most, had two years of education.” He said his mother’s picture is now in the Great Migration section of the Smithsonian National Museum for African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“The two of them sent their five children to college (who) received 13 college degrees, and it was the fact that they gave us a home experience that made that possible, that changed my life trajectory.”

Comer knew his success had to have been instilled by his family life. “I was doing my internship in my hometown and I saw my friends going down a downhill course,” he said. That town was East Chicago, Ind., “a small, tough, steel mill town tucked in between Gary, Ind., and Chicago, Ill.”

“I realized the difference was we had a good developmental experience. We were able to be successful in school and had opportunities in life, good opportunities in life, and my friends didn’t, even though they were just as smart.” One of his friends “died of alcoholism, the other spent his time in and out of mental health institution and the other spent significant jail time,” Comer said.

In his family, “We had the kind of developmental experience so that our parents protected us,” Comer said. “We had the same exposures, the same near involvements” with potential trouble.

“They exposed us to everything educational they could find … and they gave us an experience at home that was motivational — caring, guidance, rules, high expectations and they preferred to teach (rather) than punish.”

Comer had planned to become a general practitioner, but had second thoughts during his internship when “I observed kids just like my friends who were going on the same downhill course as my friends.”

So Comer decided to go into public health and joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a noncombatant service under the U.S. surgeon general. He volunteered with people who had been “thrown off the welfare rolls. Their living conditions were fragmented and terrible,” he said. “So the question became, how do you prevent this from happening? What could I do?”

“I had looked at the big society through public health, but I wanted to look at individuals,” Comer said. The Public Health Service sent him to the Yale School of Medicine from 1964 to 1967, where he was a psychiatric fellow and finished as a fellow at Hillcrest Children and Family Center, “the same community where the riots took place after Martin Luther King was assassinated.” But there were no other African Americans in the clinical program at that time.

In 1968, Dr. Albert Solnit, director of the Child Study Center, “had obtained funds from the Ford Foundation to look at education as a way of improving opportunities for African Americans,” Comer said. “He called me back to direct the program.”

Two schools, Martin Luther King and Baldwin schools, were chosen because they were the lowest-performing schools in the New Haven school district. The program later was moved from Baldwin, which was closed, to the Katherine Brennan School (now the Brennan Rogers School of Communications and Media). King is now the King-Robinson Inter-District Magnet School.

“It was Brennan and King that turned around dramatically,” Comer said. From the bottom of the list, the two schools rose to the top academically.

“The model I used was not what was being used in education,” he said. “I knew nothing about schools. I knew nothing about education. I didn’t have an educational background. I knew about kids.”

Paul Del Gobbo of Durham was principal of Katherine Brennan School when the Comer model was introduced. “It all started with him coming over and talking to me and a few representative teachers, and of course we liked what he had to say,” Del Gobbo said.

“Dr. Comer is a terrific guy and he believes in consensus, in making decisions, and he believes in no blame or no fault, as he calls it. We used to meet regularly and we had parents involved, teachers involved, and we made all kinds of decisions,” he said. The parents were paid for three hours a day but many ended up staying all day long.

“We hired parents to help teachers,” Del Gobbo said. “Before you know it the whole school wanted a parent working. We gave the parent staff development once a week and they loved it. Our grades improved, definitely. We had a lot fewer discipline problems, a lot fewer kids got sent to the office and we did well.

“The morale was out of sight, which was terrific,” Del Gobbo said. “We never had an argument. Everyone had a voice. We helped the kids academically, emotionally, in every way possible.”

However, once Del Gobbo left for a job in the central office and a new principal took over and there were new students and parents, the program languished. “When there’s change, it’s difficult to sustain what you’re doing,” he said. “People have to buy into the program and when they don’t things change.”

The School Development Program is based on three pillars: “no-fault problem-solving,” in which teachers and school staff are not blamed for problems that occur or for a lack of achievement; “consensus decision-making,” in which “you try and get everybody to think about what’s good for children; and “collaboration,” Comer said.

“Eventually, those guidelines became the culture of the school as they played them out, lived them out. That’s the way they began to live and work,” Comer said. “In this school we don’t solve problems by arguing and fighting. We work it out.”

“What we did was help the teachers think differently about kids, about behavior problems first. We looked at what structures were needed to prevent those behavior problems from occurring,” he said. The first step was a governance and management team that represented all the groups in the school: parents, teachers, administrators, support staff and older students.

“That gave them a sense of ownership … and they had to make it happen and so they had to hold themselves accountable. They identified the goals and they developed the strategies for achieving those goals.”

Two other teams, the parents team and school staff support team, made up of counselors, guidance counselors and psychologists, completed the “comprehensive school plan that included the academic focus [and] a social focus so you made the school a good place for everybody,” Comer said. “Good relationships were promoted through all the activities you carry out in your school. Once you have good relationships, you can do everything else.”

The plan changed the schools’ culture, in which “everybody was isolated, doing their own thing,” Comer said.

The program was exported to other schools. In Norfolk, Va., “We combined it with Ed Zigler’s program and that school that had inner-city project kids went from being last in the city to first.”

Zigler, a professor emeritus of psychology at Yale School of Medicine, founded the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development & Social Policy.

The change was so dramatic the school superintendent was accused of cheating on the numbers so the school was tested again and the average score was two points higher than the first time.

Herman Clark was principal of the school, Bowling Park Elementary School, which he said was similar to a New Haven school, “lacking parental involvement, high-crime community and hard to staff.” He said Comer and his staff contacted him and “talked to me about the Comer model and how it could improve all of the pathways to achievement, not just academics.

“I think the thing that impressed me the most was the fact that they were there to work side by side with us,” Clark said. “This was an ideal approach. It was nonthreatening.”

Clark and several teachers and parents came to New Haven to observe schools, then went back to civic organizations, PTAs and recreation centers to spread the word and, when Clark made his presentation, 400 parents attended. “That alone impressed school board members … It was just a happy family of people,” Clark said. “On a daily basis, we had over 50 parents volunteer in our school. We ended up being the No. 1 school in the city of Norfolk in the year after implementing the Comer model.

“The school is continuing to do better,” he said. For a while after he left, the school lost its accreditation, but “now it’s starting to improve again.”

In addition to the three guidelines and three teams, the School Development Program has three operating principles: a comprehensive school plan with academic and social components, staff development and ongoing assessment and modification, Comer said.

“You’re always figuring out how you’re doing academically and socially and you’re making adjustments to your answers,” he said. “You keep changing and so you get organic change.”

The aim of the program is to attend to all needs of the child, at home, in the neighborhood and in the school, not just to focus on test scores. “The problem in education is that it has focused until about the time we came along … on the academics only … and the development along the pathways needed for success in school and life have to be integrated,” Comer said.

Observing how children who misbehaved were being punished and labeled disturbed and sent to him for treatment, Comer realized “education is not focused on child development and teachers were there on the front lines doing the work where knowledge of child development should have been a central requirement of everybody who works with kids.”

Understanding child development “helps them on the job apply knowledge of children to the behavior. It helps them understand how attachment, engagement are so very important and … how social, emotional learning are all integrated, and we now know through knowledge of the brain that that’s the case.”

Comer knew this from his family experience and intuition. “It wasn’t until the end of the eighties that knowledge of the brain” confirmed his theories, he said. Scientists found “that the brain was being structured by the child’s interactions. The child is interacting and trying to succeed and that’s what grows the brain and we now know that.”

Comer’s program was undercut by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, enacted under President George W. Bush, which focused on granting federal education money based on test scores.

“No Child Left Behind focused people on curriculum and instruction and reading and math and all the other stuff they considered just stuff, unimportant,” Comer said.

“It was politics. They were believers and they were all middle-class, well-educated people who went to private schools, most of them, and I think most of them were true believers that that was what education was about, but in so doing they ignored the evidence,” he said.

A study had been done of 29 educational programs nationally and “only three showed consistently strong performance” both academically and socially, he said. “Ours was one of the three. The fallout of that was people said comprehensive school reform didn’t work and they didn’t look at the three that did work.”

Education officials were looking at curriculum alone and “ours isn’t based on curriculum change. No one was looking at the fact that the problem in schools has little to do with curriculum,” Comer said.

The Comer model was slow to gain traction because students who tend to do well in school “are generally from families or environments or networks that are supportive,” he said. “Wherever you have families that live under economic, social stress, marginalization, trauma, social, psychological trauma, those conditions interfere with the development of kids and, when they don’t develop well, they can’t learn well.

“You still have people who don’t want that to change. They don’t want that advantage to change, and you can’t on the one hand complain about problems of crime, about problems of dependency, about problems of people not being committed to democracy,” Comer said. “All the problems we have are related to the fact that we haven’t done very well with our educational system.”

Now, the Child Study Center is collaborating with the School of Education at Southern Connecticut State University and the New Haven Public Schools, although new leadership at both institutions has delayed progress, he said.

Comer doesn’t believe he’s succeeded in changing the educational culture nationally. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s hard to get to it because you’ve got to convince people.”

Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics (founded by his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver), graduated from Yale University in 1981 and taught at Hillhouse High School. “I spent a year at the Child Study Center in a fellowship to be trained in 1984,” Shriver said, taking a leave from the University of Connecticut chapter of Upward Bound, a program for disadvantaged youth.

Shriver “returned to the New Haven Public Schools after that and really set up the field called social and emotional learning,” he said. “We worked within collaborations to develop curricula, disciplinary strategies, family engagement strategies, teacher-training strategies.”

Shriver, who launched the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of Comer, “His impact, not just through me but through many others, has been to reshape schools into places that not only teach head but teach heart … that teach inspiration as well as inspiration. … He’s one of the most influential educators in the history of the United States.”

He said the Comer model has not made as large an impact in New Haven as it might have. “I think the problem in a place like New Haven has been the absence of sustained attention to implementation,” he said. “Dr. Comer’s work calls for a much longer horizon of child development. You can’t just drop it in like a widget. There are no vaccines in education.

“There are some good schools in New Haven and there are some fantastic teachers and there are many, many fantastic kids, but it has been spotty because the leadership has been spotty.”

Edward Joyner, now a member of the New Haven Board of Education, was executive director of the Comer program , which was implemented in five school districts in Connecticut between 1998 and 2003, according to literature from the Child Study Center.

Joyner said the Comer model taught that “beyond academic performance, character development really was in the best interests of society. He thought that every kid had potential. … He pushed back against the traditional notions of who would do well and who wouldn’t. … I would argue that Dr. Comer has made the greatest contributions to America in terms of what is necessary to educate poor children.”

Joyner said that today in New Haven, “I think there’s more lip service than use,” although he said Davis Street, Jackie Robinson (now King-Robinson), Lincoln-Bassett and Clinton Avenue schools have shown success. “I think there are pockets of excellence but what we had done in the ’90s is we wanted to reform the entire system, top-down, bottom-up.”

However, William Clark, chief operating officer of the New Haven Public Schools, said the Comer model is integral to how the system operates. “I think it really has been … a cornerstone element of how we view education in New Haven and how we look at the whole child and how we look at the whole community that’s involved in the education of our youth,” he said.

“There’s different takes or angles on what Dr. Comer and his group put in place 50 years ago. … The cornerstone basics are still making the school environment safe. If you don’t have those systems … in place it makes the climb that much steeper. Although we’ve had other partners along the way, the constant has been the Comer model.

“It’s those tenets and those core principles you find yourself coming back to,” Clark said. “When you put those pieces in place you have an environment that is conducive to learning. It remains inspirational and a guidepost and something we keep going back and back and back to.”