Revisiting a School Program that Rescued ‘Losers’
A few years ago, I read Dr. Bob Brooks’ monthly article which focused on one of his favorite themes: schools that can turn around failing students by identifying their areas of competence and creating innovative approaches that build on these competencies. The article focused on a very gratifying story about a young girl in a Hawaiian school. [Bob is one of my closest friends and an exceptional psychologist. If you are not familiar with his articles and books, I strongly recommend you check out his website, www.drrobertbrooks.com.]
As I read the article, I was reminded of an experience I had as a consultant to the Pollard Junior High School in Needham, MA back in the early 1970s. Yes, that is a long time ago! I suppose what I am about to describe was actually a very innovative concept that was ahead of its time.
In the 1970s, Massachusetts had separate funding for special education services for students diagnosed with significant emotional/behavioral problems. Providing these services in junior high schools presented especially challenging tasks for educators. Part of it was the context. Junior highs had always seemed like a bad idea to me and many others. Isolating teenagers when they are feeling disconnected from the world around them (family and community) only seemed to exacerbate their developmental issues. Obviously those teens who were struggling the most would be even more problematic in such an environment.
This was also a time when drug use had begun to reach early teens. (Of course, now this problem starts much younger.) Everyone was grappling with how to deal with this issue and there were few resources or successful interventions that had been established.
At the time, we were fortunate to have a Director of Special Education in Needham who was very open to trying new approaches to solving tough problems. In addition, the principal and assistant principal at the junior high were also very eager to try something new because the old model (isolate in a small class; punish unacceptable behavior) wasn’t working. One of the guidance counselors agreed to be assigned to the program. We had worked together with a number of children he had referred to me in the several years I had been in private practice in Needham. So when he asked me about joining their team as a consultant I was honored and excited. [It was a pro bono arrangement and understood that I could not receive referrals of any of these students.]
The basis of what we evolved relied on the following facts: these students had a long negative history with school, saw the system as being against them, did not see educators as caring or helpful adults in their lives, and viewed themselves as losers. They were all boys (unfortunately still a common finding), frequently explosive, typically arrived late or took off during the day, and came from families that were beaten down by years of behavioral problems at home and in the community.
To these facts we added some assumptions that led to a new approach: everyone has strengths (what Dr. Brooks refers to as “islands of competence”) and success required identifying these strengths and building on them as opposed to the deficit model which tries to fix the weaknesses, an approach that, unfortunately still dominates our educational system and only serves to further damage the self-esteem of struggling students; these students could not spend six hours in school; we needed to get them to believe we actually cared and that we genuinely wanted their involvement in finding solutions; parents needed support and had to also buy into what we were doing.
The most innovative aspect of the program was to have the students get academic credit for time spent volunteering in work or other school settings. This would be supervised by visits from the guidance counselor, supported by weekly classes that were more like support groups where the teens could discuss the challenges of meeting expectations in these settings as well as sharing their successes. In addition, the number of school subjects was reduced (remember they were earning credit in these work placements; that concept was a key factor in changing the students’ perceptions that nothing about school could be positive) and we used high school students to tutor/mentor these teens in the few formal classes they still had to take, reducing the time they spent in the “retard room” as they called their special ed classroom.