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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Stopping the Cycle of Failure: The Comer Model

When all members of a school community work together for the well-being of the children, the bountiful rewards belong to everyone as well.

Two years ago, parental involvement at Magruder Primary School was nonexistent, teacher morale was low, and students' rates of failure were at an all time high. Of the 25 elementary schools in Newport News, Virginia, Magruder placed last in reading ability. Only 1 percent of Magruder's 2nd grade students read at grade level compared to 53 percent citywide. Although improving test scores was an important goal, even more critical was the need for teachers, staff, parents, and students to stop the cycle of failure at the school.
Today, 86 percent of students leaving Magruder to attend uptown 3rd grades are passing their achievement tests. Test scores are up 67 percent, compared to an increase of 41 percent a year ago. Last year, parents clocked more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service, and their attendance at school-sponsored events—such as PTA meetings and father-child breakfasts—averaged 250.
The Comer Model is the catalyst that helped turn the school around (Comer 1988). Founded by James Comer in New Haven, Connecticut, in the late 1960s, the model is based on Comer's belief that “the relationship between school and family is at the heart of a poor child's success or lack of it” (Goldberg 1990). The major purpose of schooling, according to this model, is to advance students' social, emotional, and academic development toward the goal of becoming successful citizens. To accomplish this aim, the model advocates a collaborative, consensus-building, no-fault approach to problem solving.
As part of a university research consortium studying reform efforts in elementary schools across Virginia, I had the opportunity to spend a year observing changes in Magruder Primary School. This experience gave me a firsthand view of the Comer Model in action.

Making a Commitment to Change

Located in the inner city, Magruder has an enrollment of 525 students: 80 percent of the children are considered at risk, and more than 50 percent live in low-income housing. Michael Williams-Hickman had been a principal in the Newport News Public School System for three years when she came to Magruder, a school where failure was expected. Recalling her first days at Magruder, she told me: Deep down, I knew that the children could learn, and they deserved the best that we could give them. But, first, I needed to know if teachers and staff were committed to change.
After difficult, sometimes painful discussions with teachers, parents, and central office administrators, Williams-Hickman concluded that a desire for change did exist. An opportunity for making a change appeared when school system administrators announced that they were seeking sites where educators were willing to attempt school change. The Comer Model looked like a good fit for Magruder Primary, a school seeking to remedy some of the common problems plaguing inner-city schools.

Creating a New School Team

Schools that adopt the Comer Model establish teams of stakeholders to create a comprehensive plan for the school, including goals and staff development. In addition to two volunteer teachers from each grade level, Magruder's School Planning and Management Team included the principal, assistant principal, guidance counselor, librarian, a Chapter 1 Reading Recovery teacher, a teaching assistant, the reading resource teacher, a focus facilitator representing the central office, and a parent.
Team members had their work cut out for them. First, poor communication—among teachers, among staff, with parents, and within the community—was a reality that the group had to confront early on. Second, the team also recognized the importance of staff development for teachers to improve their skills in working with poor children and their parents. For example, to develop an inviting school climate, teachers must know how to earn the trust and respect of their students' families. Third, the team began to review current academic goals and establish new ones, as needed.
Armed with these three tenets, team members agreed that their basic function was to create a positive school climate. Social behaviors such as saying “good morning” to everyone was only the beginning. Team members knew that they needed to actively model the behaviors that they expected from students, parents, and others in the school community.
Since the team's formation, communication channels have opened, creating a climate of support for new ideas and problem solving that takes a no-fault approach. For the first time, Magruder's teachers, staff, and parents had an opportunity to exercise direct influence on school activities. Team members acknowledge, however, that learning how to gain consensus, delegate, and make decisions is an ongoing challenge.

Inviting Parental Involvement

To implement the Comer Model, Magruder had sought additional Chapter 1 funds. Part of this money went to hiring three full-time Reading Recovery teachers, as well as to creating a new position: the home-school coordinator. The coordinator's role was to bridge the gap between school and community. This effort was seen as bold. It was the first time that such a position had been implemented in the school.
The home-school coordinator bridged the gap between home and school by designing such activities as home-school visits and luncheons to recognize parent volunteers and their contributions. This person also kept in touch with parents through telephone calls or, for parents without phones or transportation, through personal notes.
Parents responded to this positive outreach by complying with the school's requests and by making sure their children attended school. All children from K–2 had increased attendance. In just a short time, the actions of the home-school coordinator helped to build a relationship of trust between school and home. She became known in the community as the “woman from the school,” rather than an unwelcome person from a social services agency.
Creating a “Social Calendar” for the school year was another of Magruder's outreach activities to parents. For the first time, parents learned more about the school's goals and could make suggestions for achieving them. Some of the events planned were father-child breakfasts (where children could bring a significant male to the school) and grandparent-child luncheons. In addition, teachers invited parents to attend workshops with them at a nearby university. These and other efforts by Magruder's School Planning and Management Team contributed significantly to making parents feel valued at the school.
Based on a parent survey, the team also organized workshops around topics of interest. By scheduling workshops on Saturdays and providing lunches and baby-sitting services, the school enabled more parents to attend. As a result of such careful planning, topics like “how to help with your child's homework” drew record crowds.
Rather than concentrate on increasing the level of parental involvement to that of other schools, Magruder Primary focused on understanding why parents did not come to school and communicating with them in positive ways to reverse this trend. For students, their parents' presence in the school acknowledging their achievements was a powerful motivator for continued success.
Parents were pleased to feel welcomed in classrooms not only by the children but also by teachers. One parent mentioned the “personal touch and friendliness of everyone.” For some parents, being able to decide how to be involved with the school was a new experience. As one parent expressed it: Parents don't come in because they have met negative attitudes at a school before. Sometimes schools make you feel like you have nothing to give because you may not have the money or the time when they call. As a result of their positive experiences at Magruder, several parents have decided to further their own education.
By raising its expectations for students and extending personal invitations for parental involvement, Magruder Primary has made possible greater success for the school community (Comer 1980, Lareau 1987). Were it not for these efforts, together with an effective approach such as the Comer Model, the lack of parental participation among inner-city parents would almost certainly continue to be a fait accompli (Gursky 1990).

Encouraging Teachers as Risk-Takers

As the school embraced the Comer Model, teachers could no longer dwell on the ills facing many of their students. When teachers asked the principal, “Can we love the children too much?” she answered, “No.” But empathy had replaced teaching at Magruder Primary School.
Now that change was in the air, teachers were being held accountable for the progress of each child. In meetings with the administrators at the end of each marking period, for example, teachers could no longer excuse poor achievement by saying, “This child's parent is incarcerated.” A new mind-set was, “Yes, this child's parent is incarcerated, but can she read?”
The recognition that teaching styles had to change was threatening for many teachers, and personal struggles accompanied the change process. For some, attending staff development meetings and talking to teachers across grade levels were risky. The challenges of creating exciting lessons, however, were balanced by a promise of fewer discipline problems and greater student engagement in learning.
As teachers began to give up old habits (scheduling reading for one hour a day) in favor of new ones (having children read many more times a day), the results were dramatic. A 2nd grade teacher, who had been at the school for a year before the Comer Model was implemented, commented: You can hear the children reading fluently over the intercom; before, most children could not read well.
The focus now is on higher expectations for student achievement. Every day teachers write objectives on the chalkboard and tell the children what they are expected to learn that day. The bottom line in refocusing teachers on academics was redesigning the curriculum to bring success to each student at whatever level he or she could achieve. Now every teacher expects every child to learn something every day.

A Spirit of Unity

Whenever she is asked, “What did you do, and how did you do it?” Magruder's principal responds: We raised our expectations for everyone—students, parents, and teachers. Then we told one another exactly what we expected the outcomes to be. We wrote our goals and shared them. We praised every success, no matter how small. Our students know that we value them. Our parents know that we need them and that we will take any type of assistance they can offer.
Will the changes at Magruder fade into the sunset once the extra funding is depleted? While it did take some extra money to bring about changes at the school, it also took motivation and a deep desire to exceed the expectations that the community held for the school. The Comer Model, with a strong philosophical approach and specific implementation strategies, has helped to instill a spirit of unity that in so many instances is missing in inner-city schools. With high expectations and everyone working together, the potential for success has become an attitude, a way of learning, and an education for life at Magruder Primary School.

Comer, J. P. (1980). School Power. New York: The Free Press.

Comer, J. P. (1988). “Educating Poor Minority Children.” Scientific American 259, 5: 42–48.

Goldberg, M. F. (September 1990). “Portrait of James P. Comer.” Educational Leadership 48: 40–42.

Gursky, D. (June/July 1990). “The Greatest Challenge: A Plan That Works.” Teacher Magazine: 46–54

Lareau, A. (1987). “Social Class Differences in Family-School Relationships: The Importance of Cultural Capital.” Sociology of Education 60: 73–85

Christina Ramirez-Smith has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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