Sequella Coleman

It was 2:25 p.m., and class had just let out at Metropolitan Business Academy, an interdistrict magnet high school in New Haven. Outside, the cluster of dismissed students chatting in front of the entrance was thinning. Some waved goodbye to board their buses. Others peeled off to walk home. For the members of the School Planning and Management Team, however, there was still a meeting to attend.

The committee was to gather in the guidance conference room, a two-story, oval-shaped lounge. Three-quarters of its arc are walled off by stacks of translucent blocks. With light flooding in from almost every angle, the towering room resembles a human-sized fishbowl. At the door, I was greeted by Nicholas, a junior class representative. With pride he extended his hand and said, “Welcome to Metro. This is my school.”

Principal Mike Crocco came in behind me and joined Nicholas at the table in the center of the room. Two freshmen representatives arrived soon after and sat down in chairs along the wall. Nicholas motioned for them to come to the table.

“You all sit with the big dogs now,” he said, and the freshmen beamed. Within a few minutes, a dozen students and teachers representing different grade levels, disciplines and school committees had gathered. Chris Willems, a freshman science teacher, scanned the table over his glasses. He was acting as the stand-in chair of the team that day. At exactly 2:29:50 he called the meeting to order.


Collaborations that inspire

The system behind the school management team at Metro is the Comer Model or the School Development Program, known as SDP. Created by Yale School of Medicine child psychiatrist James Comer, the SDP shifts the focus of education toward a holistic understanding of child development. Instead of conducting assessments strictly through standardized testing, the program encourages educators to evaluate their students not only cognitively, but also along five additional “developmental pathways” emphasizing ethical, physical, linguistic, social and psychological growth. In 1968, the model was first implemented in the two lowest-performing schools in New Haven. Now in its 50th year, it has spread to over 1,150 schools across the country, even making its way to South Africa, England and Ireland.

At the classroom level, the model works by embedding the six developmental pathways throughout the curriculum. According to Amanda Lupi, a fifth and sixth grade teacher at the L.W. Beecher Museum School of Arts and Sciences, a New Haven elementary and middle magnet school, the pathways are woven into everything from the school pledge to classroom readings. Shoutouts during announcements and award ceremonies celebrate students who have excelled in the pathways.

Last year, Lupi saw how effective the Comer principles were in giving children a sense of belonging. When her students analyzed the pathways exhibited by Auggie, the main character from the novel “Wonder,” she noticed that a child who was having trouble fitting in began to feel more comfortable as his peers saw how he was connected to the character.

Child development philosophy plays a role in determining how instruction style changes over grade levels. Camille Cooper, director of learning, teaching and development initiatives at Yale’s SDP, explained how students between the ages of 10 and 11 become argumentative. According to Cooper, this is a natural step in maturation; children are learning to be more self-sufficient at this stage. Instead of suppressing this behavior, the SDP encourages teachers to channel it constructively through debates and compare-and-contrast discussions.

Under the Comer Model, assessments are designed to take into account yearlong student development. At Metro, teachers from the same subject area gather twice annually to review performance and adjust their assessments and instruction based on levels of student mastery. Metro students choose a teacher every year to serve as an academic adviser to help them through the process. Three times a year, students hold individual student-led conferences where they present work from each of their classes and discuss their academic performance with their adviser and any adult invested in their future. During their time at Metro, students build a portfolio of their best work to be showcased in a senior year celebration. According to Lauren Chicoski, the magnet recruitment specialist at Metro, a Q&A is held at the end of the celebration for teachers and parents, which results in deep discussions and reflections on students’ high school careers.

“This is very different from high-stakes standardized tests where you administer the test and … [it goes] into never-ever land.” Willems said. “We’re constantly looping back with children and helping them master content they have not yet mastered.”


Driving the school

On the schoolwide level, three teams are implemented by the SDP to provide support for the model: the School Planning and Management Team, the Parent Team and the Student Staff Support Team.

According to Willems, the School Planning and Management Team is “the engine that drives the school.” At Metro, the group meets once a month, providing a platform for students and teachers to discuss school wide policies ranging from funding raising to academic advising. Opportunities for student internships and class trips are facilitated by the committee through partnerships with nonprofits, government organizations and local businesses. Willems has found that despite the range of its responsibilities, Metro’s School Planning and Management Team is able to stay on task by following the Comer principles of  “collaboration, consensus and no-fault problem-solving.” These values save time by keeping team members from assigning blame and taking irrefutable stances on decisions.

While the School Planning and Management Team deals internally with school policies, the Parent Team provides an outside perspective on the school management network. For Cooper, this became apparent when she was working as a principal in Dayton Ohio in the late 1990s. She decided to work part of the SDP into her school by establishing a parent committee. Through this new channel, parents began advocating for a shift to a year-round school calendar.

“They moved the whole community to say yes,” said Cooper.

After Cooper left Dayton to join the SDP at Yale, she observed how engaging with these committees could improve child development at home. In her current work, she is training parent groups at Brennan Rogers School of Communications and Media and Christopher Columbus Family Academy. Some parents have told Cooper the workshops have changed the way they engage with their children.

“They’ve stopped shouting at them or they’ve looked at new ways of trying to correct their [children’s] behaviors,” said Cooper.

During school hours careful engagement with students is particularly important to the Student Staff Support Team, a group designed to help manage the stress that students and staff might bring with them from home.

At Metro, the team is made up of a lead council from Southern Connecticut State University, Metro’s own school leadership team, partners from the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven and graduate student social workers from Southern Connecticut State and the University of New Haven. Every week, the group meets to discuss individual cases that may require support. Two or three graduate student interns are also always on call to talk with students and help them return to class. Some New Haven schools such as Brennan Rogers offer more support through morning meetings which allow students to collectively share their feelings with their classmates and teachers.

According to Fay Brown, the director of child and adolescent development for the SDP, teachers can also carry issues with them to school that can get in the way of education. At Metro, the Student Staff Support Team monitors staff mental health and is responsible for organizing stress reduction workshops, nutrition seminars and the occasional back massage.

To support these three main teams, Comer schools often have specialized subgroups. Data teams advise School Planning and Management Teams and Student Staff Support Teams using metrics from attendance to test scores. School Climate Committees, mandated by the state, are incorporated to monitor culture and bullying. Other teams handle fundraising and magnet school requirements. Together, these groups work to carry out and update the Comprehensive School Plan, a living document containing the objectives of the school.

To help coordinate these teams and ensure the Comer model is functioning properly, Yale SDP staff will occasionally sit in on School Planning and Management Team and Student Staff Support Team meetings to provide feedback and assistance. According to Sequella Coleman, the principal of Davis Street Arts & Academics School, a New Haven magnet elementary and middle school, the extent of this assistance varies based on the progress of the school in setting or reviving up the model. Chicoski finds that the Yale staff keep the meetings balanced by providing research and articles for the teams to discuss. In one instructional exercise led by SDP staff, Willems was asked to picture the day in the life of a Metro student.

“We actually imagined what it was like to get on the bus and come here and then experience through the child’s lens the day-to-day interactions,” he said. “It was a really powerful vision and activity that helped me a lot to think about the whole child.”


Rallying the village

While the Comer Model has maintained a presence in the New Haven Public School system since its creation in 1968, support and funding for the program has ebbed and flowed. In the late 1990s, Brown noticed New Haven Public Schools began adopting or returning to the program in waves. In 2001, however, public education moved sharply towards the prioritization of test scores with the No Child Left Behind Act. Funds for travel were cut and districts stopped searching for reform models. Before, workshops offered by the SDP at the Omni Hotel in New Haven drew 200 to 300 educators five or six times a year from around the country. After the legislation passed, only half as many attended the sessions. Teachers started to see the model as an extra burden to work into their test preparation curriculum.

But what the educators failed to see was that SDP’s methods could only improve standardized test performance. A report published in 2002 by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk labeled the SDP as one of only three models with “statistically significant and positive achievement effects” on test scores. During the sessions, teachers were encouraged to pay attention to the physical development and mental health of their students. How much sleep were they getting? Were they drinking enough water?

“It would take by midweek … for [the teachers] to really have their eyes opened,” said  Brown. “They were just being advised … to work differently.”

Despite the success, support for the SDP in New Haven has been repeatedly tested by new initiatives. Some programs such as the New Haven Public Schools 21st Century Competencies, which stresses many of the same values as Comer, can be combined with SDP, though Willems said other initiatives are continuously emerging which have the potential to replace the Comer Model.

However, New Haven teachers who are veterans to the SDP have remained loyal. Willems, who taught at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven before coming to Metro, worked under three principals who used the model to varying degrees. According to him, no other system rivaled the Comer program. He acknowledged, however, that the model requires unified endorsement to function.

“[Wilbur Cross] was the largest high school to manage in the district. … Without much direct support for Comer principles, it was not going to happen,” he said.

In 2014, the SDP started a collaborative with Southern Connecticut State University and New Haven public schools to introduce future teachers to child development. After receiving a Kellogg grant to fund the partnership, Yale staff have delivered presentations at Southern Connecticut State and provided onsite training. The grant has also allowed the SDP to hold a four day academy in July for the past four years where Southern Connecticut State students are mixed in with teachers from New Haven public schools for workshops. According to Brown, the future teachers can learn a lot about the current realities of education from the New Haven veterans. It all comes back to the Comer principle of collaboration.

“One person alone in the school can’t do it all,” said Brown. “The principal can’t do it all. He or she needs to work with the entire staff to rally the village.”

Just before 3:30 p.m, Willems called Metro’s School Planning and Management Team meeting to a close. In under an hour, the team had covered an impressive amount. Principal Crocco began by sharing statistics about the successful completion of student-led conferences. The Student Staff Support Team reported that since the beginning of the school year, they had worked with 71 individual students. Teachers from different grade levels and subject matters commented on the revisions they had made to their curriculums in the past semester. When concerns about the academic advisory guidelines were raised, students and teachers quickly arrived at a consensus and updated the system. Issues with the bake sale policy and the “failure-intervention plan,” the school’s strategy for helping struggling students, were similarly resolved. After opening up the final minutes of the meeting for any need-to-know updates, the group adjured. Students zipped up their backpacks and teachers gathered their papers. Another productive meeting was in the books.