Pioneer in education and child development Dr. James Comer visits AAPS

Dr. Green with Dr. Comer
Superintendent Dr. Patricia Green with her friend and mentor Dr. James Comer at Allen Elementary Monday night. Dr. Green holds a copy of Dr. Comer’s most recent book: “The Road Less Traveled: How the Developmental Sciences Can Prepare Educators to Improve Student Achievement.”

By Tara Cavanaugh

The district was treated to a special visitor this week: Superintendent Dr. Patricia Green’s mentor and friend Dr. James Comer.

Dr. Comer is an internationally recognized child psychiatrist. He created the Comer School Development Program in 1968, which has been used to improve academic performance of low-income and minority students in more than 600 schools nationwide. 

Dr. Comer is currently the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University of Medicine Child Study Center. He has authored nine books and has served as a consultant for Children’s Television Workshop, the producer of Sesame Street and the Electric Company. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan, Yale, the University of Indiana and Howard University.

“You know how you have a special teacher you remember all of your life? He’s my special teacher,” Dr. Green said.

On Monday evening, Dr. Comer attended the PTO Council 5th Annual Launch Party at Allen Elementary, where he talked about the evolution of attitudes toward education. In the past, he said, most people thought that child development and academic achievement were separate, with parents raising children at home and teachers teaching children at school. “But it’s the relationship we have with children that motivates them to learn,” he said.

Dr. Comer’s School Development Program has been used in schools to improve test scores, attendance and behavior of low-income and minority students. The program focuses on creating strong relationships between teachers and students and helping students become responsible for their own learning.

Although he is a world-renowned figure in education, Dr. Comer didn’t plan to pursue a career in the field. As a young man growing up in East Chicago, Ind., Dr. Comer noticed talented and intelligent friends “going downhill.” During military service, he noticed the same problem.  “So the question was: how do you prevent those problems from developing in the first place?” he said. He changed his career path from medicine to child psychiatry in pursuit of answers.

Dr. Comer’s support of young people was clear as he met Rising Scholar students, who are required to take honors classes and do community service work, at Pioneer on Tuesday morning.

Dr. Comer with Rising Scholars students
Dr. Comer with Pioneer’s Rising Scholars students. Seated from left: Rising Scholars teacher Dawn Richberg, Assistant Superintendent for Student Intervention and Support Services Dr. Elaine Brown, Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services Alesia Flye, Superintendent Dr. Patricia Green, Dr. James Comer, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Robyne Thompson, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Dawn Linden, Pioneer Interim Principal Kevin Hudson.

“I’m glad to see you here,” Dr. Comer said to the teens. “I want to congratulate you and thank you for your effort.”

The students asked him what motivated him, which of his successes he was most proud of, and the best solution to closing the achievement gap for good.

“This is one of them,” he said motioning to the students gathered in the room. “Coming together and making it clear you are committed to getting the best education you can.”

Dr. Comer with Rising Scholar Lauren Comer.
Dr. Comer with Rising Scholar Lauren Comer. Lauren is his great-niece.

“I think what Dr. Comer’s visit really does is gives the students some perspective, some history on those who came before and who are trying to work on helping students be the best they can be,” said Dawn Richberg, the Rising Scholars teacher.

“Hopefully students learned that it is a process,” she said. “There are challenges that will come up but you have to keep working at it.”

That’s exactly what Rising Scholar Nicolas Foster took away from Dr. Comer. “I want to become a surgeon,” he said. “I know it’s going to be hard. But if he could do it back then, then I can do it too.”

Dr. Comer told the students about his experiences with teachers and adults who doubted his academic abilities because he was African American. “I urge you to ignore anybody who doesn’t want you to be successful,” he said.

One student asked about Dr. Comer’s future. “People sometimes ask when I’m going to retire,” he replied. “Age is a number. I’m 78. Why retire?

“I’ll retire when everyone in America believes in the importance of the development of children,” Dr. Comer chuckled. “So I have some time.”

Dr. Comer also visited  Scarlett Middle School and Mitchell Elementary during his two-day visit, and he was also a guest at Tuesday’s instructional council meeting at WISD.


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