I applaud the students who wrote the May 27 commentary “Student voices are to be heard, not ignored.” Their main point: “School climate isn’t about fights and suspensions, but about creating an environment within our schools where everyone can thrive.”

As a teacher-counselor, I’d like to reinforce their thoughts with my observations and experience. Perhaps it will shed some light on giving hope for the kind of school the writers seek.

First, I’d like to say in no way are administrators, school boards, teachers or students at fault for what our schools have become. To the contrary, I applaud all those able to function well in spite of the way the system perpetuates and aggravates a poor school climate.

The system induces dysfunction

Our antiquated school system has evolved out of some very bad science that has led to many dehumanizing structures and procedures, and worse, seriously dysfunctional relationships.

• Bad science: Early “scientific” studies concluded that the mind is like a vessel to be filled with knowledge and that the school’s role is to do that. Thus, students come to class and sit in rows, and when the bell rings, the vessel-mind is supposed to open up and receive what the content-provider presents. And, when it rings again, students move on. How unnatural. The system works against every principle of effective learning known. Sometimes there’s a connection, but more often than not, students are in a different world. And they quietly or overtly rebel.

• The curriculum conundrum: The origin of the word “curriculum” comes from an 18th-century Latin term “curricle” meaning, “a race to be won.” The students are to run the race — without asking why, because someone “out there” knows best exactly what every student ought be learning at any moment. Call it what you want, it is one example of a school system’s unintended structural violence against students, and some will respond to that violence with violence.

• Compete or die: In the curriculum race, students compete to “win.” And, if they don’t, the bell-curve grading system will chew them up, labeling them “losers.” Some so-called “losers” are left with an indelible mark of low self-worth, and that leads to even more devastating consequences — violence, suspensions and, yes, even suicides. As for cooperative learning, there’s no incentive for that under the accepted competitive grading system.

• Hierarchical management: Probably the most harmful aspect of the system is that its survival depends on a staff’s exerting superiority over students. In their Star Tribune commentary, the student authors vehemently objected to that: “We are competent, our narratives are real, and every day we grow more frustrated and angry.” They are demanding respect, and I cheer them on.

Changing school climate

What’s so sad about poor school climate is that so many suffer. Everyone is a victim — not just the students, but the teachers, administrators and community all suffer. The good news: It does not have to be that way.

To change the school climate, everyone involved has to first see the nature of their school’s dysfunctional systems.

I saw it when I was teaching in the public schools on the Near West Side of Chicago 60 years ago, where violence was almost a daily occurrence in most schools.

I saw it while teaching at a Hennepin County suburban high school in the 1960s. Connecting with students happened in spite of system obstructions. Still, the general school climate was so stifling, after 10 years, I had to either quit teaching or change the learning environment.

So, two other teachers and I proposed a “school-within-a-school” for 150 students (which the superintendent and school board approved). We placed students at the center of an individualized integrated learning approach. Our premise was, everyone wants to learn — it’s in our nature, and students will respond positively with just a little guidance from people who care. Only a few common-sense rules everyone understood and agreed to were needed.

The atmosphere was democratic. We were all equals as human beings, and students knew we were there for them. We encouraged cooperative learning and became co-learners ourselves. There were no bell-curve tests for grading; only individual interviews and verifiable project work were weighed to arrive at a jointly agreed upon grade.

The results were astonishingly successful. Aliveness pervaded throughout our spacious room. Student choice-making was ongoing. A sign-on bulletin board was used to invite participants to a plethora of activities posted by the students. They helped one another and teamed together to prepare and give presentations. The learning environment was healthy. There were no discipline problems. We laughed together and celebrated achievements. It became real clear to me: people of all ages are capable of much more than we can imagine when they are self-motivated and free to learn.

Change can happen anywhere

For those who think this kind of outcome can only happen in a middle-class suburban school, I say, not true. It can succeed in any community — even the most impoverished ghetto.

For example, on March 20, 2015, “60 Minutes” had a segment about St. Benedict’s Prep, in a ghetto of Newark, N.J. The school was riddled with so much chaos and violence it had to close down in 1972. When it reopened a year later, it became a model school run mostly by the students. Today it has a 2 percent dropout rate (compared with 30 percent in nearby schools), and 85 percent of those who do graduate go on to college.

When asked how you get through to problem kids, the school’s counselor said, “It’s all about connectedness.” The whole approach is based on an atmosphere of students committed to one another’s welfare, the power of activated minds, cooperative learning, and trust in strong, democratic relationships among all staff and students.

I say that if St. Benedict’s could do it, so can your school. Fundamental will be mutual respect and connectedness at the center of all that is happening. Every person has to really feel and trust that the other has their back. And helping one another learn must be held in high regard.

So, to the dozen students who wrote and published their article, you have shown the kind of courage and leadership it takes to make such a school a reality. You are blessed.

 

Earl “Sook” Holdridge is a retired teacher, counselor and businessman with a background in Montessori teacher training.