Public Release: 

Yale Child Psychiatrist Advocates For Children And Schools As Solutions To America's Dilemmas

Yale University School of Medicine

NEW HAVEN, Conn., Oct. 15, 1997--At age 63, James P. Comer, M.D., the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale's Child Study Center, readily admits that he is waiting for a miracle even in today's complex world.

In fact, this energetic and innovative psychiatrist and public health expert who has devoted more than half of his life to promoting a focus on child development as a way of improving schools feels so strongly optimistic about children that he has written another book, Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can't Solve Our Problems--and How We Can.

"There is nothing wrong with the kids," Dr. Comer says. "The problem is in the culture -- and not in black culture as some claim, but in a societal belief system based on two insidious but very powerful myths:

  • able individuals will rise by their own efforts and
  • whites have been successful and blacks have not."

While acknowledging that individual effort is important, he points out that the developmental experience of the individual, the quality of the opportunity structure (health, education, political and economic access), and luck are even more important determinants of outcomes.

"The notion of the individual as the sole source of success creates a winner-loser mentality, and it creates a need to scapegoat the so-called losers," the Yale child psychiatrist says. "This fuels racism and ethnic tensions.

"Throughout American history, every new group was scapegoated until its members could gain the political, economic and social power to stop it," he says. "Because African Americans were a caste group, they only began achieving powers in these areas in the 1960s. Around then, the nature of the economy changed, requiring the very thing an excluded group was least able to provide--a very widespread, high level of community, family and school functioning."

Dr. Comer speaks as much from his own background as from his scholarly work. His family was enmeshed in the black church culture of the steel mill town of East Chicago, Indiana. From that setting, his working-class parents gave him and his four siblings the child-rearing experiences that enabled them to garner 13 college degrees among them and to pursue careers that enabled them to contribute to society.

His effort to understand why he and his siblings were able to succeed when other equally able young black people went on a downhill course led to the initiation of his work in two New Haven public schools in 1968.

The now highly-acclaimed Comer School Development Program operates in more than 650 schools in 28 states and Washington, D.C.

Watching many schools improve dramatically, only to return to mediocrity through careless administrative or economic and political decisions, or to simply be ignored despite dramatic achievements, led Dr. Comer to look beyond what goes on in schools as the source of school problems. These observations led him to the two myths, the resultant underinvestment in the development of all our children and the harmful consequences for all Americans. "The myths prevent us from making the opportunity structure adjustments the nation will need to survive and thrive in the 21st century," he says.

Ever optimistic and never pointing the finger of blame, Dr. Comer says, "Through a focus on children and the creation of schools that support their development, we can create a win-win culture--competitive but caring--that can lead to the good society we have tried to become over the years."

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James P. Comer, M.D.

James P. Comer, M.D., the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine's Child Study Center, has been a Yale medical faculty member since 1968. During these years, he has concentrated his career on promoting a focus on child development as a way of improving schools. His efforts in support of healthy development of young people are known internationally.

Dr. Comer perhaps is best known for the founding of the Comer School Development Program in 1968 which promotes the collaboration of parents, educators and community to improve better social and emotional outcomes for children and, in turn, achieve greater school success. His concept of teamwork is improving the educational environment in more than 600 schools throughout America.

A prolific writer, Dr. Comer has authored six books, including Beyond Black and White, 1972; School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project, 1980; the autobiographical Maggie's American Dream: the Life and Times of a Black Family, 1988; and Rallying the Whole Village, 1996. Since 1978, he has written more than 150 articles for Parents magazine and more than 300 nationally syndicated articles on children's health and development.

In between his Yale medical teaching activities and writing, Dr. Comer has served as a consultant to the Children's Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street and Electric Company. He was a consultant to the Public Committee on Mental Health that Rosalyn Carter chaired and the Pre-Education Summit meeting held Sept. 20, 1989, with President George Bush and Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos. Since 1994, Dr. Comer has served as a member of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. In addition, he has been associated with the National Launch Committee for Americorps and the National Campaign to Reduce Youth Violence.

For this work and his scholarship, Dr. Comer has been awarded 37 honorary degrees and been recognized by many organizations. This fall, he received the 1997 Michael Bolton Lifetime Achievement Award for his work with children and women at risk.

In 1996, he won the prestigious Heinz Award in the Human Condition for his profound influence on disadvantaged children and also the Healthtrac Foundation Prize. Among his other honors include the Charles A. Dana Award for Pioneering Achievement in Education, 1991; James Bryant Conant Award, presented by the Education Commission of the States, 1991; Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, given by McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1990; Special Presidential Commendation from the American Psychiatric Association, 1990; the Rockefeller Public Service Award, 1980; and the John and Mary Markel Foundation Scholar in Academic Medicine, a five-year award which ended in 1979.

A native of East Chicago, Ind., Dr. Comer received an A.B. degree in 1956 from Indiana University, a M.D. degree in 1960 from Howard University College of Medicine, and a master's degree in public health in 1964 from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Between 1964 and 1967, he trained in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and its Child Study Center. He also completed one year of residency training at the Hillcrest Children's Center in Washington, D.C.

October 1997
Comer School Development Program

For 30 years, James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H., a Yale child psychiatrist, has conducted pioneering work in school restructuring. Dr. Comer, the Maurice Falk Professor in Child Psychiatry at the Child Study Center at the University's School of Medicine, originated the School Development Program (SDP) in 1968 to offer a systematic school reform strategy.

The Comer School Development Program is being implemented in more than 650 schools in 28 states and Washington, D.C. (SDP website: http://info.med.yale.edu/comer)

Resisting the fragmentation common in public schools throughout the United States, the SDP uses a comprehensive approach in which all groups-students, teachers and parents-work in a collaborative fashion, coordinating resources and programs to establish and achieve school objectives and goals.

All aspects of the SDP's work are driven by relationship and child development imperatives, focusing mostly on management and structural organization within schools that hinder adequate functioning of all members of the school community. The program seeks to provide information and assistance to help schools of education, state education departments and other agencies make their policies and practices more child centered.

The SDP process incorporates nine basic elements: three teams (parents, school planning and management, and student and staff support); three operations (comprehensive school plan, staff development, and assessment and modification); and three guiding principles (consensus, collaboration and no fault).

Outcomes and Implication of the SDP

  • With the SDP, schools can be improved and become hubs of the community
  • Many parents have been motivated to improve their own education, employment, and lives through their involvement in the improvement process
  • Students from low-income but no longer low-quality academic settings have earned degrees at highly competitive colleges
  • Students who attended SDP schools had significantly higher scores on self-concept, social competence, resilience, attendance, and academic achievement
  • Families become active partners with school staff
  • Teachers express more positive perceptions of their students and collaborate more with each other following SDP implementation
  • Local school districts benefit from working with partners, such as schools of education, state departments of education and mental health organizations
  • The SDP's insistence on child development provides schools with an overarching framework for decision-making which helps schools coordinate all of the initiatives in schools as well as eliminate programs that do not promote achievement.

The SDP process, when working properly, is like the chain and sprocket of a bicycle. Appropriately assembled, it allows parts that can't take you anywhere separately to be pulled together. Effort applied to the pedals now moves the system, under the control of the cyclist. With a working bike, disparate elements become more effective-curriculum, instruction, assessment, use of technology. Another way to think about it is that it incorporates many small engines of effort, which sometimes work in opposition, into a more powerful and directed engine. - James P. Comer, M.D., Waiting for a Miracle

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