Dr. James P. Comer, the founder and director of the School Development Program at the Yale Child Study Center, visited Hartsville, South Carolina in January. He met with the leadership of the Darlington County School District, including superintendent Dr. Eddie Ingram and Mrs. Carlita Davis, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and attended a meeting of the District Planning and Management Team (DPMT) that provides system-level support of the School Development Program implementation in Hartsville.
Dr. Comer also met with the board of the TEACH Foundation, the administrative arm of the PULSE initiative that oversees the funding of the Comer Process implementation in four pilot schools in Hartsville. In his presentation Dr. Comer explained that there is a connection between development and learning. “Development and learning are inextricably linked,” he says. “If children develop well, they learn well. Education as an enterprise doesn't focus on development. Instead, the focus is on the input and output of information.”
Dr. Comer believes that the input/output model was adequate, but not sufficient through the 1950s and early 1960s. Students could quit school and find employment without an education. In today’s high-tech environment, that is no longer possible. Today’s schools must make it possible for all children to learn at a high level. Children who don't succeed in school are unable to earn a living. “This change is the cause of many of the problems we see in society,” he explains. “We are spending too much money on social welfare and entitlement programs and not facing the development issues that can make a difference.”
Dr. Comer pointed out that because the human brain doesn't fully develop until around the mid-20s, most behavioral and impulse problems are caused by immaturity and underdevelopment. Rather than punish children for such behaviors, Dr. Comer's development focused framework for school transformation supports creating a culture where adults work together to help children become more responsible for their own behavior and learning.
“We can't assume that kids who don’t perform well in school are bad or dumb,” Dr. Comer says. “Most are underdeveloped. If we can understand that and support their development using the six pathways, we show children what we expect in terms of behavior. When we help kids commit to desirable behavior, we get successful outcomes.”
Dr. Comer visited Southside Early Childhood Center, Thornwell School for the Arts, and Washington Street and West Hartsville Elementary Schools and talked with the principals, teachers and students. He was impressed by the way teachers were using activities designed to support growth along the developmental pathways. He was also impressed with how well behaved and engaged the students were at all four schools.
As the pilot program heads toward the end of year 3, Dr. Comer believes the components are in place or are being put in place in all the schools. “The end of the third year is generally the time when the School Development Program really takes off,” he says. “Most people are making the connection between development and learning, and we are seeing teachers taking abstract ideas and making them concrete.”
Dr. Comer says that visiting Hartsville is a unique experience. “It's a pleasure to work in a community that doesn't use a one size fits all approach, but rather fits the program to meet the needs of the students.”