Kicking off a two-day symposium celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Yale School Development Program on Monday evening, child psychiatry professor and program founder James Comer signed copies of his new book criticizing President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education policy and outlining his own philosophy on teaching.

The symposium, at the Omni New Haven Hotel through Tuesday, honors Comer’s work on the development program, which strives to create a community in schools by mobilizing adults to support children’s education and development. The program, which Comer founded in New Haven in 1968, has since spread across the nation from New Haven to New Orleans and Springfield, Mo.

In honor of the program’s anniversary, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. declared Tuesday “SDP Day.” In a statement, DeStefano called the program “the forerunner of all modern school reform.”

In addition, the city decided to name a street corner outside the Martin Luther King School after Comer, Michael Ben-Avie, one of the symposium coordinators, said. The elementary school is one of the two New Haven schools where Comer introduced the program.

“It’s the big surprise of the night,” Ben-Avie said. “Dr. Comer only found out this morning.”

One of Comer’s main arguments in his book, titled “Leave No Child Behind,” is that Bush’s education policies focus too much on standardized tests and not enough on life skills such as problem solving and communication.

“Now more than ever, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy focuses too much on testing,” Ben-Avie said. “Only cognitive development is tested. The question we’re examining is whether there is anything we’re learning in brain research that has implications for healthy, normal child development.”

The major goal of the symposium is to apply new brain research to child development programs and to examine as many aspects of children’s educations as possible, Ben-Avie said. To work toward this goal, the symposium features many speakers from a range of backgrounds. They include neurologists, researchers, principals, superintendents, professors and politicians. Comer, who is also an associate dean of the School of Medicine, will speak today at 2:30 p.m. about the past, present and future of the program.

Prince George County, Va. adopted the program 20 years ago, and the schools have since improved dramatically, said Molly McCloskey, who worked with the school district for several years and was at the symposium Monday.

“It got the county speaking in a different language,” McCloskey said. “It helped people see the value of parents and other members of the community. There is a commitment to lifelong learning.”

Ronnie Lowenstein, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Major Owens, a Democrat from New York, said at the symposium that the congressman supports the program’s model because it helps close the achievement gap.

“It helps to create an ecology of community renewal,” Lowenstein said. “The focus is on empowering educators, engaging the parents and community and inspiring students to aspire and achieve academically.”

The symposium will honor several dignitaries from across the country, including New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo. In addition, the New Haven Public Schools received the program’s school district award.

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