Two-day sessions review SPMT, SSST concepts and ideas
The Coker College library was buzzing with activity for two days in early August as teachers and staff from three of Hartsville's four Comer schools participated in professional development. Dr. Camille Cooper, the Implementation Coordinator for Hartsville and the director of Learning, Teaching and Development for the Comer School Development Program at Yale University, led the instruction.
The first day focused on the functionality of the School Planning and Management Team (SPMT). Starting on a positive note, a quick review of successes from the 2013-14 school year enabled paired teachers and staff from different schools to compare information. In one instance, teachers from Thornwell School for the Arts and Southside Early Childhood Center compared notes on incentive programs designed to encourage appropriate behaviors. At Southside, the Bear Hugs program is tied to the Comer Pathways. At Thornwell, the Tiger Paws program is also tied to the Comer Pathways, but it was modified for students in grades four and five who thought the rewards were too babyish.
Other first day sessions encouraged teachers and staff to work in breakout sessions with other schools, present findings and share common solutions. While discussing the role of the SPMT, Dr. Cooper suggested each schools strive to streamline its activities with a comprehensive school plan that combines required plans, such as TAP, the system for student and teacher advancement, Title 1 and others. “By aligning goals and activities, these plans can all work together,” Dr. Cooper says. “Streamlining makes it easier for teachers and staff to be successful.”
Later, participants from each school worked individually to assess the progression of its SPMT. They then worked together, discussing among themselves and arriving at a consensus, and later presented findings to the other two schools. Every school noted that communication could be improved, and that by focusing on school issues rather than personal/personnel issues, the team would be more effective. Other issues included bringing new teachers up to speed on the Comer Process and learning who is in charge of what on the teams.
The second day of professional development was similar in structure, but focused on the Student and Staff Support Team (SSST). Again, the day started with recognizing successes and identifying where gaps exist so plans can be made to fix any areas of identified improvement.
New team members were especially grateful for the overview of how the SSST fits into the school's day-to-day activities. One teacher explains, “This was a great session. I am new to the SSST and I am committing to being an active member in every way possible.”
The teachers and staff also reviewed and evaluated discipline procedures. Each school presented an overview of the process for disciplining a child, and then the entire group made suggestions and recommendations on how to overcome barriers that do not support development.
“Dr. Comer believes that when a child acts out, there is a development issue along one of the pathways,” says Dr. Cooper. “We need to prevent potential problems from becoming crises. We do this by providing classroom teachers with strategies to support development and model desired behaviors.”
By Cynthia R. Savo and Catherine Romaine Henderson
(Editors' note: Before the start of the 2012-13 school year, the Comer Core teams in Hartsville participated in Comer 102 professional development workshops that asked educators to examine the activities that take place during the course of a school day and how to make them more developmentally supportive. In the February 2014 issue of the Hartsville Comer Connection, part 1 of this two-part series focused on Nancy Williamson and Lana Faile's 5K classroom at Southside Early Childhood Center. The focus of part 2 is on classroom and school jobs for fourth and fifth grade students at Thornwell School for the Arts.)
At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, fourth grade teacher Michelle Brand assigned jobs to all of the students in her homeroom. This was a change from what she had done the year before when only some students had classroom jobs. "I realized that the students without jobs felt left out. I thought that if I gave all of them jobs every student would feel equally important," she explains. "I think that when the children have more responsibilities, they take better care of our classroom, and it makes them more responsible for their chores/jobs in the real world."
In the morning Brand's students work together to get the classroom ready for the school day. Preparing for breakfast is job one. Some students go down to the cafeteria to pick up the food and drinks, others take down the chairs down and wipe off the tables. Others turn on the lamps around the room and sharpen pencils. When the food arrives, they are ready to eat breakfast together then clean up afterwards.
Brand sees the "jobs for all" strategy as a win-win for her students and herself. "Having jobs makes students feel important and gives them ownership of their learning environment," she says. They don't argue or fuss over who is doing what. Because they receive incentives for doing a good job instills a sense of pride and responsibility."
And, Brand adds, because the jobs rotate throughout the year, everyone has an opportunity to contribute to a positive and collaborative learning environment.
As for herself, Brand says that having students perform simple tasks in the classroom gives her more time to focus on other things that only she can do.
Student Jobs in a Developmentally Supportive School
It takes a coordinated effort to start off each school day smoothly. Principal Julie Mahn says, "We are a working machine in the morning" due in large part to the effort of a group of fifth grade students. "They help first and second grade teachers by cleaning the tables and setting up for breakfast, preparing the room, and assisting children with the computers. They are excellent."
Students also get ice for the health room, some are assigned to empty the recycling bins, others raise the flag. "I have several principal's helpers," says Mahn. "I leave work on the table and a to do list, and they get it done. The workers wear tags and complete time sheets. They get paid $2 every two weeks. I enjoy watching them learn how to be responsible and they know we depend on them."
"Developmentally fourth and fifth grad boys and girls work well together and like to perform adult tasks," says Dr. Camille Cooper. "Socially they worry about who's 'in' and who's 'out,' so providing everyone with an opportunity to contribute to their classroom learning environment and the school is developmentally supportive. It is important for all the adults in their lives to effectively channel the restless, high energy of this developmental period into constructive community service that gives them a role and earns them the adult recognition they seek."
Brings expertise in development and learning to prestigious panel
Dr. James P. Comer, founder of the School Development Program (SDP) and Yale Child Study Center professor, was recently appointed to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Comer and 14 other members will advise the U.S. president and the secretary of education on ways to advance federal programs that improve educational opportunities for African Americans, increase participation of the African-American community in federal agency programs, and engage stakeholders in a national dialogue on the mission.
Charged with strengthening the nation by ensuring that all African Americans receive an education that prepares them for college, productive careers, and satisfying lives, the commission is part of the Obama administration’s broader mandate to restore the country to its role as the global leader in education. The mission fits into Dr. Comer's philosophy of development and learning.
“It was my belief 50 years ago that the focus of research and intervention in African-American education should be on excellence and potentials more than deficit; and should use a holistic and public health approach,” says Comer, the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center. Comer has spent his career working to improve schools and education, “especially for children who have been closed out of the social and economic mainstream.”
In Hartsville, four elementary schools are in the third year of a five-year pilot program using the Comer SDP. Teachers, staff, administration and parents are learning the connection between development and learning. The Comer SDP is recognized worldwide for its success in improving scholastic performance of children from lower income and minority backgrounds.
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.”