Dr. James P. Comer and Dr. Patricia Green
Dr. Patricia Green, the superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, met recently with Dr. Comer at the Yale Child Study Center. The following is an edited transcript of a interview with Dr. Green.
I still remember the day I heard Dr. Comer speak for the first time. It was at a principals’ retreat after my first year as a principal in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I had recently gotten a Master’s degree in Human Development Education. I had in the back of my mind, not a framework, but a philosophy, and then I heard Dr. Comer speak. What he did, I believe, was revolutionize a framework for how you put it all together: the School Planning and Management Team, the Student and Staff Support Team; the different teams interfacing with each other with an emphasis on consensus.
I remember one day having to come face to face as a principal with the Comer Process principle of no-fault problem solving. In those days principals had the local authority to make decisions. We had our School Improvement Teams, but the principal always retained 1% more of the power, so the principal had 51%, and everybody else had 49%. I remember thinking that if we’re a Comer school and dealing with the concept of consensus, and deciding that decision making would be 50-50. I figured everyone knows I’m still the principal, and they’re not going to step on my trigger points, and I won’t step on theirs.
When I first went to Columbia Park Elementary School as the principal there were discipline issues. Much of it was happening in the cafeteria where there would be food fights. About thirty-two children a year were being suspended, which I thought was pretty high. Over those initial years we put some tighter controls into play in the cafeteria while we were teaching social skills. At one point my staff came to me and said they wanted me to relax some of the rules and depend now on the social developmental skills that we had taught our youngsters.
I remember being panic-stricken when they came to me because when there’s chaos in a cafeteria, the discipline referrals in the afternoon can be enormous. It was an incredible dynamic. I had to come face to face with the three guiding principles of the Comer Process: consensus, collaboration, and no-fault problem solving. They knew that though because this is also a part of the dynamics on the teams. They knew that I would be confronted with this kind of thing, and said they wanted to give me some choices. They knew what my triggers were, and I knew what their triggers were.
They proposed sending a committee out to look at some other strategies then sharing what they had learned with me. They wanted to decide collectively which model to use to change the dynamic in the cafeteria. They wanted the children’s social skills to emerge without the adults controlling the environment. I said OK, but I was very skeptical. We decided together how to do that. With consensus in mind, they said, ‘Let’s do it for two weeks as a pilot and see how it goes.’ They knew that that was my comfort level, and I knew they were reaching out to me. I said ‘That sounds fair. Let’s do that.’
I was just so scared of what was going to happen during those two weeks. That it would all fall apart. They were so energized, and so were the children because we had taught them social skills as part of their development. Everybody was so energized to make it work. I would wander into the cafeteria, because I said that if wasn’t going to work I didn’t want it to go too far. I was so amazed myself to see how things had evolved by the children using their social skills. It was beautiful to watch.
Around that time Angela Robinson, a local TV news reporter from WTTG, came into the cafeteria and saw the children with napkins across their laps interacting with one another. She asked me if it was staged. And with pride I could see how I had evolved, and I said, ‘Oh, no. This happens all the time.’ She went out and watched the different dynamics on the playground—the respect, the feelings between young people for each other, the way the staff interacted with each other and with children. That’s an interesting story. It gets lost over time about how young people can take control, and it doesn’t have to be the adults who are taking control.
It was so rewarding to see the fruits of our labor and seeing the power of what Dr. Comer’s vision as a child psychiatrist was able to do for kids. The results were staggering. In my school, Columbia Park, we went from being one of the lowest achieving schools in the district with significant discipline problems, a lot of suspensions, and no PTA, to being the first school to win the National Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education presented by President Reagan. Columbia Park was named one of the ten best elementary schools in America by Child magazine, and was one of the four schools profiled in the two-hour McNeil-Lehrer Report documentary, Learning in America: School That Work. They picked us because we were an exemplary Comer school. Roger Mudd followed us around for a week.
All of that came from Dr. Comer’s program at Yale. It was a privilege to be affiliated with it. It was the highlight of my career when I think back on those early days. Although I’ve been a superintendent in two very high-achieving districts, the emotional high for me was being the principal of Columbia Park and being involved with the School Development Program—days that I will never forget.