The School Development Program at 50: Looking back and looking forward

Dr. James P. Comer writes about the program he created, which has grown into a model being adapted throughout the country.
Photo of Dr. James P. Comer
Dr. James P. Comer

The 2017-2018 academic year is a special time for us at the Yale Child Study Center School Development Program (SDP). It is the run-up year to the 50th anniversary of our work. In 1968 I, along with colleagues from the Child Study Center, began to create the SDP in two of the lowest performing elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut. The outcome was the first codified and reported school intervention model in which the test scores, behavior, and attendance of poor and or socially marginalized students improved dramatically.

Most school interventions, past and present, focus primarily on improving academic achievement as measured by test scores. The SDP focuses significantly on creating a school culture that enables educators, parents, and students themselves to embrace academic learning and preparation for life; which leads to improved test scores. It requires the application of child and adolescent development principles and strategic planning by school participants in a way that can lead to program stability and flexibility; to positive student development, high-level school achievement, and effective adult functioning.

This process model was successfully field tested and widely disseminated through universities and other partners. The model has been evaluated extensively by several noted university researchers. By 2002 our SDP team was providing training in the use of the model to nearly 2000 educators annually from most regions of the country. The No Child Left Behind legislation and movement narrowed the national education focus to academic basics, and led to greatly decreased use of our SDP approach, especially the infusion of child development knowledge and principles into teaching and learning practices.

The SDP model has been the genesis and springboard to the growing Whole Child movement. (I am the honorary chair of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.) Our SDP focus has been on the creation of a place-based collaborative involving a school district, an educator preparatory program, and our School Development Program. The main goal of this collaborative is to enable educators to create developmentally supportive programs and practices that can be sustained over time despite changes in school leadership and other staff, and shifts in political realities.

We are planning a 50th anniversary symposium to take stock and renew our longstanding commitment to our position that the missing piece in education reform is the centrality of child development; and its integration with academic learning. We are interviewing educator colleagues to help us understand how the SDP model served them and benefitted their students. There will be a critical analysis of all aspects of our work; and responses by expert panels. And, local, state and national education thought leaders will participate as part of a strategy to help turn a half century of research and intervention into pervasive everyday use; particularly for the benefit of our most vulnerable young.

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