EVERY TIME there's turmoil in a Philadelphia public school, the district responds by sending in more cops. I don't remember a single time when they sent in more counselors.
Safety personnel are essential to making schools safer, but they can't do it alone. Counselors and cops working together are the way to both prevent and respond to behavior problems. More needs to be invested in staff, time and professional development in prevention and counseling, rather than in more cops and more drastic punishment of students.
In recent years more than 3,000 Philadelphia students have been reassigned annually to "alternative" schools for disciplinary reasons. The school district paid private companies more than $40 million last year to educate these students, with the goal that they will return to regular public schools ready to learn. While almost $30 million goes to for-profit Community Education Partners (CEP), neither CEP nor the District can tell us what percentage of the returning students graduate.
Beyond the glaring need for financial accountability, we as a community need to look at why so many students land in disciplinary schools in the first place. My hunch is that many (if not most) of them previously attended schools that failed to provide a more positive learning climate and adequate counseling. Had the schools done that more successfully, many of these students would have never reached the point of having to be sent to disciplinary schools.
Kids, particularly adolescents, test social situations to see how far they can go. They seek approval from peers. And, perhaps most important of all, they have good antennae for whether grownups care about them and expect them to succeed. So when a school does not have the essential elements of a positive climate - sensible, consistent and fairly enforced rules, a staff that respects and is respected by students and an adequate number of counselors to help those who are troubled - many kids act out and get sent out.
In its recently released analysis of school climate, Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) describes behavioral health in schools as a pyramid. At the base is the need for a holistic strategy to promote positive behavior and identify and treat problems.
The mid-section of the school behavioral health pyramid consists of supports that students need when they stumble. Unfortunately, our schools not only have too few counselors to begin with - an average caseload of more than 500 students - but too many counselors are commandeered to cover classes of absent teachers or fill in special ed. paperwork, so little time exists for actual counseling, leading to more and more troubled students.
We know many students are dealing with difficult lives. Schools can no longer afford to miss the opportunity to provide places to talk, to develop support systems among their peers and adults, so that students can focus on academic progress.
At the top of the pyramid are therapy and treatments for those students with serious behavior issues. A relatively small number of in-school programs are available and the uneven qualities of those services have led to limited results.
So where do we go from here?
First, we should make positive climate a priority in every school. We must challenge regional superintendents and central office climate, safety and counseling administrators to ensure that every principal is equipped with the skills needed to create and maintain a positive climate.
Second, we should hire more counselors, focus their time on counseling, and supplement their work by reaching out to graduate students, adult mentors and communities of faith to become part of the school's student support system.
Third, we should deepen the partnership between schools and city agencies to provide more efficient and effective services to truly troubled kids. If the city invests more money in the behavioral health of young people, it would produce a return in the form of fewer adult mental health problems in the future. *
Debra Weiner co-chairs the PCCY Education Committee. Copies of the report can be downloaded from www.pccy.org or obtained by calling 215-563-5848, ext. 12.