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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Where Children Come First

In Washington, D.C., teachers, parents, and students are working together to turn their schools into places everyone wants to be.

“Books and Burgers Night,” debutante balls, and a country fair complete with ponies and cows. These events may sound strange in connection with inner-city schools, but they are part of a growing effort to sponsor meaningful, engaging activities that involve students, parents, and community. In an urban district where drugs, violence, and crime are a part of daily life, 53 schools in Washington, D.C., look different from neighboring schools because of their participation in the Comer School Development Program (Comer 1991).
Originally begun in the New Haven, Connecticut, Public Schools (Comer 1980), the Comer Model was launched in 5 District of Columbia schools in 1990. Since that time, 48 other schools (about one third of the District's total) have become Comer schools, for a total of 44 elementary schools, 7 junior high/middle schools, 1 alternative school, and 1 comprehensive senior high school.

Team Building and Training

  1. The School Development Team meets at least once a month to discuss, plan, and coordinate the school's program. Members include the principal or assistant principal, teachers, parents, community representatives, and sometimes students.
  2. Members of the Parent Program work closely with the School Development Team to coordinate social and public relations programs, establish parent rooms and centers, and promote greater parent involvement in the school. Many Comer schools sponsor parent workshops, GED programs, food and clothing banks, and other services to parents.
  3. The Mental Health Team addresses issues of prevention and intervention with regard to social services problems. Members include the principal (or a designee), counselor, social worker, psychologist (if the school has one), nurse, speech teacher, resource teacher, and other social services support people.
In addition to these three governance teams, the Comer framework includes three necessary operations and three guiding principles (see fig. 1). A crucial aspect of the model is training for all participants. For example, school governance teams learn such skills as group processing, conflict management, and team building. At monthly staff development meetings, principals learn skills that will enhance their roles as leaders, managers, and facilitators. In addition, workshops for parents introduce the Comer Model and suggest a variety of ways they can participate in their child's school.

Figure 1. Comer School Development Program


Some School Snapshots

What do Comer schools look like? Here's a glimpse of four schools in the District of Columbia (D.C. Public Schools 1993).
Miner Elementary School. In the fall of 1993, Principal Angela Tilghman issued a challenge to her students: If they could read 25,000 books by graduation time, she would perform an entertaining stunt for them. Students earned extra points by inviting their parents to “Books and Burgers Night,” which drew more than 300 parents and students. Students who brought a book and a parent received free hamburgers and sodas. The top reader in the school received a savings bond.
In mid-June 1994, Principal Tilghman kept her promise. Dressed in a Minnie Mouse costume, she performed stunts on the roof while local media taped the event, and both children and parents cheered.
Richardson Elementary School. Working together, teachers and parents bring the country into the city with the school's annual Fall Festival. Events include a bake-off contest for parents, game booths created by students, a “pumpkin patch” on the asphalt playground, and a variety of farm animals—ponies, goats, and cows—for the children to feed and pet.
Marie Reed Learning Center. At this school's annual Debutante Ball, 4th through 6th graders have an opportunity to dress up and display the social skills they've been practicing all year. Increased poise and self-esteem are results of this popular event.
Browne Junior High School. Boys to Men and the Young Ladies of Distinction are two groups that Browne has created to promote positive values. Every week, volunteer mentors meet with these young people to prepare them for the culminating event: a special cotillion held at a downtown hotel for all participants.
These are but a few examples. Just about every Comer school in D.C. can boast of the same kinds of wonderful events. Three of our schools have been named Blue Ribbon Schools by the Department of Education, and one recently earned a School of Excellence honor in our district. In addition, many national and international guests come to Washington to visit the district's successful Comer schools (D. C. Public Schools 1994).

Collaboration for Success

Lest anyone think that it's all fun and games at these schools, remember that the activities described here are the icing on the cake for a lot of serious learning by students and extra effort by adults in the school community. It is wonderful to have watched the transformation of these schools from unwelcoming institutions into inviting havens where students, staff, and parents are valued for their talents, skills, and abilities; where the climate is pleasant and safe; and where a unified focus on the child prevails.

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

Comer, J. P. (1991). A Brief History and Summary of the School Development Program. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Child Study Center.

D.C. Public Schools. (1993). The Comer School Development Program. Franklin L. Smith, Superintendent; Gretchen D. Lofland, Director; Washington, D.C.: D.C. Public Schools.

D.C. Public Schools. (July 1994). “An Evaluation of the Comer School Development Program in District of Columbia Public Schools.” Draft.

Gretchen D. Lofland has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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