School improvement leader stresses school culture that supports healthy development and learning

At the root of successful schools is a common understanding among teachers, administrators, and families that the culture within the building needs to support children’s development in order for them to succeed later in life. But that foundation does not exist in many schools, particularly those serving the most at-risk students.

James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H., an internationally renowned expert on school reform and Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center, stressed that message during a recent Erikson Institute President’s Council event. The event featured a conversation between Dr. Comer and award-winning journalist Alex Kotlowitz on the topic “Reflections on Race, Early Childhood, and School Reform: Can Schools Make a Difference?” Dr. Comer drew on his five decades of experience improving more than 1,000 of the lowest-performing schools in the United States through the Comer School Development Program at Yale.

The President’s Council is convened by Geoffrey A. Nagle, Ph.D., Erikson’s president and chief executive officer, to engage friends of Erikson with issues that are important to the early childhood field and help shape the conversation about supporting children and families. The events feature premier thought leaders and experts in the field sharing their knowledge and experiences through discussions and presentations.

Beginning the conversation, Kotlowitz noted that education is often viewed as a “transcendent” institution, or a “great equalizer.” But after a decade of school reform, many schools are not better off. “So the question is, where did we go wrong?” he said.

“I don’t know that schools ever did what we claimed they do,” Dr. Comer said, noting that many families and children were left out of mainstream society as the United States shifted to an industrial economy and were pushed even further out over time. “Education can be transcendent, but we can’t focus on academics alone. One of the ways the Comer School Development Program has helped schools is that we’ve established belief systems in those communities around what we were trying to accomplish, and everyone — parents, teachers, administrators, and students — became caregivers of those values.”

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Erikson President and Chief Executive Officer Geoffrey A. Nagle, Ph.D., introduces James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H., and Alex Kotlowitz.

Children cannot perform well academically in an environment that doesn’t foster their development by connecting them as a community, giving them space to explore and create, and have healthy, respectful relationships with adults, Dr. Comer said. Learning becomes an even greater challenge for children who live in communities impacted by issues including violence and poverty, factors that disproportionately impact children of color and cause added anxiety.

“Many children are coming into a place as confused and difficult as the community where they live,” Dr. Comer said, adding that restoration of communities affected by decades of distress must go hand in hand with school improvement.

Too often, academic outcomes — usually standardized test scores — are used as the primary measure for school performance, he said. But environmental factors must be considered, too, as they are the foundation for student success.

“Test scores will come if you create a good place with values that encourage curiosity, let you explore, and teach you how to interact with others,” he said. “There has to be motivation to learn, behave, and achieve.”

Kotlowitz, known for his bestselling book “There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America,” asked Dr. Comer about issues at the heart of many Chicago communities, including the establishment of charter schools within the public school system and their impact on children’s education and well-being.

Dr. Comer shared his perspective that charter schools undermine the democratic intent of the public school system by providing new schools with their own cultures that cater to select students while the underlying issues causing existing schools to perform poorly often go unaddressed.

“Charter schools leave children behind,” Dr. Comer said. “When resources are diverted away from existing schools, students in those schools have fewer opportunities to move into the mainstream.”

Dr. Comer also noted the importance of a child’s early years and that their experiences from a young age have an impact on their development and success over time. More is known today about children’s developmental needs than ever before. However, more institutions should follow Erikson’s lead by preparing professionals with the knowledge of understanding the whole child.

“Our earliest experiences prepare us for the long run,” Dr. Comer said. “Everything Erikson does to prepare professionals with that understanding, that’s what all institutions should be doing.”

For more information on the discussion and for an updated gallery of photos, click here.