A Yale Psychiatrist's Rx for Behavior Problems Spells Relief for Ailing Inner-City Schools

UPDATED 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

James P. Comer winced when he first approached the Simeon E. Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools back in 1968. Both were scenes of urban and educational blight, located in the depressed heart of New Haven, on streets scarred by broken bottles and empty lots. The interiors of the schools weren't much cheerier. Hallways were virtual corridors of terror. Unsupervised children raced about wildly, and fights erupted frequently. Comer, a young doctor who had just finished his training in child psychiatry, wasn't surprised that students in such a climate were already about two years behind their grade level. "These kids were plenty bright, but they were headed downhill," says Comer, now 49. "They had skills that succeeded on playgrounds and in the housing projects, but they hadn't learned the social skills that would enable them to succeed in school."

Fueled by the belief that such low-income children could be taught the same social rules that other kids learn at home, Comer entered the two schools as head of an experimental team from the Yale University Child Study Center, intent on creating an atmosphere more conducive to learning. First, he and his cohorts had to modify the students' unruly behavior. The initial step was to train teachers and administrators to respond to the special problems of low-income, socially underdeveloped minority students. Comer recalls a dramatic example. An 8-year-old from North Carolina had transferred to King in the middle of the semester. When he was introduced to his class, the frightened boy had kicked the teacher in the leg and run from the room. Comer and the CSC team—two social workers, two educators and a psychologist—met with the teacher. Together they diagnosed the boy's explosion as a classic "fight or flight" reaction to stress. Instead of punishing him for "bad" behavior, the teacher had the boy's classmates make "Welcome Johnny" signs and assigned a classmate to help him adjust—as he quickly did.

Though the first five years were marked by trial and error and unforeseen pitfalls—Baldwin actually closed eight years ago—the long-term results have been spectacular. Today classes at King are orderly. Students are attentive, often enthusiastic. Attendance levels are higher than those at all but one other school in the city. Since 1975 King students have outranked those of every inner-city school in New Haven, scoring either at or above grade level on standardized tests for math and reading skills. Former King seventh graders are two years ahead of non-King students at other New Haven schools in language arts and more than one year ahead in math. "Back in the '60s, Comer's was one of the voices in the wilderness," says Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi, Connecticut Commissioner of Education. "Now we've expanded his model to 10 schools in New Haven. The program should be a beacon to other inner-city schools."

Comer's theory that socialization is a prime factor in academic success has never been popular with education administrators. "Most policymakers haven't been inside a school in years," Comer says. "Their notion of learning is mechanical. A teacher teaches, and the machine learns. It doesn't matter how the machine feels." In response to educators who criticize his reliance on mental-health skills, Comer argues that children from low-income, often broken homes receive messages of despair rather than hope, and thus have little incentive to learn. His team formed a steering committee to involve parents with teachers and by 1977 had hired 15 parents as teachers' assistants to work in the classrooms. "The atmosphere at school immediately became more positive," recalls Stephen Signore, principal of King at the time. A "Discovery Room" was created to let slow learners work in a noncompetitive atmosphere, and a "Two Years with the Same Teacher" program was begun to offer students the opportunity to spend more time with instructors they felt close to.

After the program took root Comer made another dramatic change by stepping back from it. In 1980 the CSC began a fellowship program through which teachers and administrators are trained at Yale for one year, then returned to schools to work as agents of change within the system. Though the 10 schools in the program are in varying stages of progress, most have witnessed significant gains in students' social and academic skills.

Comer, an open and quietly assured scholar, attributes his own success to the backing of a strong family, which helped him overcome considerable odds. "When my self-esteem was threatened," Comer has written, "my parents provided support and incentive." The second oldest of five children, he was raised in East Chicago, Ind. by Hugh and Maggie Comer, a laborer and a domestic, neither of whom had more than a grade-school education. Comer graduated from Indiana University but chose medical school at predominantly black Howard University in Washington, D.C. because of the racism he says he found at Indiana. "I had to go where I was wanted, not where I was merely tolerated," wrote Comer in his 1972 book Beyond Black and White, a first-person response to racial issues. After getting his M.D. he served a stint in the Public Health Service in Washington, D.C, then entered a master's program in public health at the University of Michigan. "I started thinking about institutions where you could intervene in society and effect some change for low-income kids," he says. "Schools were the natural choice. I decided to become a child psychiatrist, and was accepted at Yale in 1964." While there he worked in inner-city schools and four years later eagerly signed on as head of the CSC school program.

During those years Comer, the father of two children, rose to the position of Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale, where he is also an associate dean of the Yale Medical School. He writes a monthly column for Parents magazine, and his third book, School Power (1980), chronicles the history of the CSC program.

Now armed with the credentials of his success in New Haven, Comer has made a mission of disseminating his model to other urban school systems. He is troubled by his conviction that he has solutions to problems that are often beyond his reach. One day as he was waiting for a visitor in the seedy New Haven railroad station, a group of black teenagers erupted in a noisy brawl over a few dollars. One of the girls screamed obscenities, oblivious to the disapproving stares of passersby. James Comer looked on thoughtfully, an expression of deep sadness etched in his face. "Those kids never learned that you can't behave like that in public," he said quietly. "If you don't learn those rules early, you'll never make it in the world." He paused, then added, "Good schools would have been able to help those kids."

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