By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The biggest difference between many D.C. public schools and their suburban counterparts is the enormous and too-often-ineffectual infrastructure the city system has built to deal with a few kids in each classroom who throw tantrums, assault teachers or otherwise disrupt the proceedings.
Over the years, the D.C. schools have tried everything: suspensions, alternative schools, uniformed police, security guards, walkie-talkie-wielding deans of discipline, counselors and a hugely expensive expansion of the number of kids declared to be in need of special education.
Now, just as Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have hit on a strategy that gets at the roots of the behavior woes that plague the system, political sniping between the mayor and the D.C. Council is getting in the way of helping kids deal with the violence and anger of poverty and letting teachers teach.
When Fenty and Rhee took over the schools, they offloaded many functions that had stolen attention from teaching. Over the years, the D.C. system had become a baroque bureaucracy that ran everything from an in-house security force to warehouses full of books that never made it to the classrooms.
But the council is now trying to force the schools back into the police business and strip Fenty's deputy mayor for education of his ability to foster innovation.
Fenty's approach, D.C. START (Student Assessment and Resilience Team), is an audacious and promising stab at confronting behavior problems where they begin. Social workers who were hired and trained through Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso's office are stationed at seven elementary schools and one middle school; they work one-on-one with kids who hurl books at teachers, shout at classmates and adults, or monopolize teachers' attention with their anger, grief or depression. What's different about D.C. START is that it gets clinicians into the children's homes; it coordinates -- for the first time -- the city's contacts with a family across police, mental health, social service and other agencies; and, by all accounts, it works.
At Simon Elementary School in Anacostia, social worker Adrienne Biel has counseled 35 of the 315 students this year. A first-grade boy who broke up his class every day by screaming at teachers and throwing desks across the room spent 21 weeks with Biel, talking about problems at home and learning to calm himself when he grew frustrated. The other day, Biel saw the boy standing quiet and alone in the hallway. She asked him what he was doing.
"I'm doing my deep breathing out here so I don't get angry in there," he replied.
The shift in the boy's behavior resulted from counseling at school, outside therapy, a behavior plan that's enforced at home and parenting classes for his guardians.
D.C. START is intended to attack the too-common belief among teachers that many kids who come from troubled homes cannot be held to high standards. "The hope is that we will chip away at the wall that some teachers have built around themselves in terms of low expectations," Reinoso says. "As they start to see troubled kids become better-behaved, teachers will regain their faith that kids can change and succeed."
It's too soon for statistical proof that START works, but the program it's based on, in Upstate New York, has been around long enough to demonstrate that referrals for discipline drop by more than a third in schools with this strategy in place.
Debby Rager, who supervises D.C. START, says families who are asked to open their files at all city agencies may be suspicious at first but soon see that the reward for sacrificing some privacy is help with domestic violence, substance abuse, parenting and medical and legal problems.
Another boy at Simon had a tendency to run out of his classroom, bringing teaching to a halt. Biel discovered that the boy's mother had died and the father was out of the picture; the grandparent in charge blamed the school for the child's problems.
It took several months of calls and visits, but Biel won the grandparent over, and the boy is now seeing a psychiatrist, is on medication and is functioning far better at school. "Yes, these children have concerns at home," Biel says, "but if we say, 'Oh, they have so many issues at home that they can't learn,' then why do we come here every day?"
Biel's reach extends far beyond the classroom: She has found places for kids at a grief camp and in a cheerleading program, and she has helped parents get legal aid, drug rehab and jobs.
Council members want the school system to take over START, but Reinoso argues that in government and business alike, innovation tends to come from outside core structures -- from Bell Labs, not the phone company. "This is moving forward in large part because it's apart from the school system," Reinoso argues.
"The council is essentially undoing parts of mayoral control of the schools just two years in, when they committed to trying this for five years," Reinoso says.
Simon's principal, Adelaide Flamer, credits Biel with helping kids cope with violence, with calming some of the most difficult kids and with discovering connections among families at the school -- the kind of intimate mapping of the community that helps teachers understand who's who and where tensions and alliances begin. Principals don't want to hear about political infighting; they want that clinician. "Just don't take her away from me," Flamer says.
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