Defusing Tension in American Schools
by Courtenay Singer
Tension, disruption and even violence occur routinely in classrooms nationwide.
Student aggression presents a chronic obstacle to teaching. How do you handle students
who are hurt, disruptive, rage-filled and sometimes violent? More to the point,
how do you teach them?
Some communities attack the symptoms with a show of force. They hire security
officers. They pass students through metal detectors. They deploy SWAT teams. Fear
on the school grounds and in the front office begets a veritable crackdown on kids.
But inventive reformers are taking unconventional approaches to alleviate tensions
by addressing the root causes of children's misbehavior. Their more sophisticated
models go deeper, calling for compassion, connection, creativity and community.
And they're getting results, not just in improved behavior but in student achievement.
James Comer, Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, is making headway
in major urban centers like Chicago, Detroit and Miami. Ask Dr. Comer how to
get children to behave and how to teach them, and his answer is: care about them.
Comer says adults must come together to create a positive culture in school to
lift kids out of the tensions wrought by the chaos they face at home and on the
“By creating a positive culture in school,” explains Comer, “children who come
in with pain, anger, aggression can quickly give it up because they feel wanted,
valued, safe. And the adults and the other children around them become carriers
of the positive culture.”
Comer's positive culture calls for a teamwork approach to school management and
problem-solving, along with an on-the-ground social worker to support troubled
children and families. The object is to provide at school whatever support the
children might lack at home, and to combat the street culture that lures them away
from learning. So-called “Comer schools” are known for peaceful environments and
significant academic gains.
A coast-to-coast network of college-preparatory middle schools known as KIPP
(Knowledge Is Power Program), take another effective approach. To help kids to
focus, KIPP sets limits, eliminates distractions, imposes heavy academic
demands and keeps kids on task, working hard at learning.
According to Dan Caesar, Principal of KIPP 3D Academy in Houston, “When you
are establishing a school culture …you have to set limits on the kids: ‘These are
the expectations we have for you and they're high. If we say that you guys are
part of a team and a family, we need all of your actions to show that.' ”
Co-founder Mike Feinberg puts the onus on the school. “Every day there are 101
reasons why the kids come into school… not ready to learn. Some of those reasons
are ridiculous, some are very legitimate. And I think we have to act on the fact
that, as a school, we have the potential… to eliminate those variables and do whatever
it takes to help the kids learn.”
In New York's District 2, former principal Daria Rigney faced similar challenges
as she set out to improve student achievement in PS 126 in Manhattan's impoverished
Lower East Side. She recalls the parks outside the school: “People smoking dope,
lots of drinking, hardly any places to play – just dirty playgrounds.”
One teacher, Al Guerriero, remembers the classrooms with a shudder. “Just total
chaos,” he says. “When I entered the building I just didn't feel like there was
any control… any structure for the students.”
Rigney surmised that dull, uninteresting classes led to misbehavior. “I needed
the school to be calmer so that we could move on with instruction. But I also felt
as though the best discipline plan was a good lesson plan.” With improved teaching
and curriculum, Rigney's strategy succeeded, and PS 126 is now heralded as a model
Across the Southeast and Middle America, High Schools That Work (HSTW) has developed
strategies to steer students away from distractions and to help interest them to
invest in academics. Gene Bottoms, founder of HSTW, points out that “most of us
come to believe in ourselves when an adult first believes in us. When we started doing
this work… there were literally hundreds of thousands of students in high school
who belonged to no one…no one knew them.”
Becoming known saves many children from getting into serious trouble. In Kentucky,
Corbin High School's Jordy Davis was kicked out of high school twice: once as
a freshman, and again as a sophomore. He was undirected and constantly in hot water.
But taking hands-on courses in Corbin's technical center, a key strategy of High
Schools That Work, he learned computer-assisted drafting under the close tutelage
of Darryl Horn. His enthusiasm sparked, Jordy now plans to attend college for an
All of these approaches got results – and none by wielding power.
Paying attention to working models is important not just to improve school effectiveness,
but also because violence and drugs are endemic among American youths. The National
School Boards Association estimates that more than 135,000 guns are brought into
U.S. schools every day. The Children's Defense Fund and National Center for Health
Statistics report that firearms killed more than 50 children every week in
2002 alone. And every year, at least four times as many kids and teens are non-fatally
shot. According to the National Mental Health and Education Center for Children
and Families, nearly 8% of adolescents in urban junior and senior high schools
miss at least one day of school each month because they are afraid to attend. And
recent studies suggest that half of all high school students have tried drugs.
Dr. Comer believes that focusing on child development is the key to turning things
around. He says that since many children are products of stressful, often traumatic,
environments, they come to school “underdeveloped;” with inadequate social skills,
incomplete coping tools and an inability to concentrate. These deficits leave them
under-prepared for school, and thus unable to learn.
One Comer school, Jordan Community School opened in 1993 in Chicago's Roger's
Park, a neighborhood plagued by dangerous, desperate conditions spawned by poverty
and circumstances that wreak havoc on families. Some parents were overworked and
absent. Some neglected their children. Many abused drugs. The community was held
hostage by gangs and racial tensions.
Not surprisingly, children brought the conflicts from home and the community
straight into the classroom. And instructors struggled to keep order and teach.
Fortified with a Masters Degree in Social Work and Ministry, Chris Griffin joined
Jordan Community School as the “Comer Social Worker” a few years after the school
opened. “We were dealing with a group of kids who were very traumatized,” he says.
Griffin routinely heard students' stories of physical assault, rape, drug abuse
and extreme neglect. He provided consistent counseling in an attempt to offset
trauma's lasting effects. The positive culture created by school adults was a lifeline
for troubled children, which engendered the school's nearly perfect attendance
“I was amazed that these kids were coming to school,” he says. “They were angry,
depressed, hopeless… why bother? I think they came because they knew they had adults
at the school who cared about them, who noticed if they weren't here.”
Griffin worked hard to involve the parents, a key Comer principle. He recruited
parent volunteers, and worked on parenting skills. For example, many of the children
suffered corporal punishment at home. Griffin explained to parents that this type
of discipline can have a negative impact on children, and worked with them to find
alternatives to violence at home.
Chris Griffin ended up working at Jordan Community School for seven years. Over
time, the school and the students in it calmed down and concentrated on class work.
The way Griffin sees it, caring was key. “If kids have somebody in this world that
cares about them,” he says, “that's going to get them to the next level.”
Skeptics might sneer that this approach sounds too “touchy-feely,” but Griffin
disagrees. “ If kids do not feel safe, if kids are anxious, if kids are feeling
scared, they're not going to perform well. They're not going to show what they're
really capable of doing. And I think it behooves us to learn how to create the
safest environment possible, where kids will be able to show who they really are.
And if that's touchy-feely, then we need it.”
Dr. Comer would agree. In his view, test scores are the tip of education's iceberg.
His focus is to improve students' well being, nurture their growth, and positively
enhance the school environment. His hope is that children who attend Comer schools
will emerge successful in academics, and in life: as parents, partners, citizens
KIPP schools also labor to create a positive culture, offering a system of rewards
for students who perform well and meting out calibrated punishment when students
fail to measure up. Mike Feinberg cites the basic principles: “When they make good
choices, when they choose to get their work done, when they choose to be respectful
to each other, when they choose to solve problems constructively, we want to make
sure they're rewarded for it. And when they make bad choices, and they choose to
not get their work done or choose to be disrespectful to each other, we want to
make sure there's a consequence for it.”
In order to handle students who are disruptive or slacking off on homework, KIPP
schools separate the children from classmates in a strategy called “benching.” Explains
Feinberg: “They're ‘on the bench,' as in ‘they're not part of the team playing
the game,' they're on the sidelines watching. We do not want to punish children
by taking away their education. We don't believe in suspending children….they're
still in the classroom, they're still learning but they have to sit apart from
their teammates and the only one they can talk to in that classroom is the teacher.”
KIPP schools have scored, lifting children to a level playing field academically
with high achievers around the country. KIPP kids go on to top high schools, and
in most cases, college. More than 80% of alums from the two original KIPP schools
who completed high school got into college. And in 2005, 90% of KIPP high school
seniors earned colleges acceptances.
As Feinberg puts it, many previously disruptive KIPPsters are “climbing the mountain
to college.” Formerly anger-driven Comer students are moving on successfully to
junior high and high school. And a drifter turned drafter at Corbin High School
is looking forward to a college degree in mechanical drafting. As an alternative
to power, all of these models nurture children towards being their best – and they