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.
These tutors were carefully chosen to fit the interests of our students, so some of their time together could be spent talking about subjects of common interest (cars and music were especially high on the list). Obviously, part of the concept was to expose the students to the idea that kids like them could find success in school and have a plan to do something positive after graduation.
I’ll share some examples of what we did. My favorite is about a boy who loved animals. He admitted he once thought about being a vet but soon “realized” he was too stupid to ever become one. We arranged with a local animal hospital for him to “work” there every morning from 8-10am. This student, who usually failed to arrive at school until about 10am, was nearly always on time for his new job. The people at the animal hospital were great and gave him the opportunity to have contact with the animals as opposed to sweeping the floor. He had a natural affinity for the animals, which they responded to, and the staff often complimented him on how helpful he was. This young man suddenly felt good about something in his life and it was a part of his school program! He received credit for two courses since he spent an equivalent amount of time there. And no homework!
The work placement model included assisting an electrician, working with the maintenance staff at the high school, working at a gas station, and in a music store (this last one actually led to giving some lessons to young children because the teen had his own band and was a reasonably skilled drummer). I know there were a few other placements but those are the ones I can still remember after all these years. For some of the teens we used a placement that has remained popular for decades: tutoring elementary school children. The idea that they could teach was off the charts for these students who saw themselves as stupid and lacking academic skills. While they may have been years behind their peers in most classroom skills, they knew enough to teach young children. More important, as has been proven over and over in many contexts, the ability to make a difference in the lives of others can be a life altering experience. It clearly contributed to a very different self-image for these teens.
Creating this new program not only took the support of key people in the system but it also required arranging transportation from work setting to school (or both, because some of the students came to school in the morning and did their placement after lunch). Fortunately the town had a small bus that we were able to utilize. An unexpected positive fall-out from this new model was that the special education teacher no longer needed an aide since her class was usually smaller. In fact, because of the involvement of the high school tutors, sometimes the teacher had free time to consult with other teachers in the school who still had contact with these students or just to work one-on-one with a student.
After a couple of years we were pleased with the progress we observed. It was a mixed bag, not a miracle “cure.” Some of the students made dramatic gains, others modest ones, and only a few were unable to benefit at all (as I recall these were the teens that had the most significant drug problems). We were excited about continuing but, sadly, the program came to an abrupt end. A new director of special education came in and did not support the program. That’s all it took. I was not allowed to continue consulting and the guidance counselor was required to focus his time elsewhere. The program was eviscerated, which only served to emphasize what we all knew going in: you must have full support of the system or even the best of ideas is doomed to fail.
I have enjoyed recalling this experience after it had slipped from my mind many years ago. While, as Dr. Brooks reports in his article, many innovative programs like this can be found all across the country now, there are still too many places where a strength-based approach is not utilized, especially one that reaches out into the community and finds a place where these beaten down students can fit in successfully. I share these memories with you in the hope that it triggers some readers to try to build such a model in their own school for the next school year. If that happens, I would love to hear from you.
Kids at lockers photo available at Shutterstock