Teacher Jenna Perry’s 7th grade English class at Fresno Unified’s Yosemite Middle School sounds like most others. Kids work to finish up their assignments, as the period is about to end. But there is something that makes her classroom different.
“Ok, before we leave today, let’s go over our class goal today. Somebody tell me, should we earn a point for staying on task? Why or why not? Regina?” says Perry.
At the end of every class before students are dismissed, they go over their goals, which are spelled out in a social contract they all wrote and all signed.
“And those social contracts include all the things students want to see and hear in their classrooms in order for them to excel,” says Perry.
Things like staying on task, following directions, and showing respect.
“And they have what we call the silent check. So if they see somebody that’s not meeting the social contract or doing something that breaks that social contract they can check each other. And it’s silent so you can’t yell you can’t put your finger in somebody’s face,” says Perry.
The social contract is just one of the strategies included in a program called “Capturing Kids’ Hearts.” Yosemite principal Ed Gomes implemented the new learning tool as a way to build better relationships between students and adults.
“When I first got here, what I noticed is there was a lack of relationship between adults and students lots of yelling at them, students misbehaving, students not happy coming to school. Our attendance rate was in the mid 80’s, or 87 percent, lots of absences, lots of disorderly classrooms,” says Gomes.
In other words, Yosemite was a school where the students were out of control. 8th graders Christobal Martinez and Emily Byars describe what it was like.
Byars: “They would disrespect everyone. They would like cuss at each other throw things at the teachers or other students,” says Byars.
Martinez continued: “And a lot of violence and fighting I actually didn’t want to come to school because of all that.”
Now when you walk across campus this is what you hear. No cussing, no putdowns.
Stevenson: “What do you think about your principal?”
Student: “He’s a funny, awesome dude when I’m down he makes me laugh.”
Yosemite is a small school, with only 600 students and it’s located literally across the tracks at 9th and Olive in southeast Fresno. Many of the students come from what you could describe as being challenged homes: single parents, foster care, and homelessness. Principal Gomes says school administrators dealt with discipline problems by isolating those students from the classroom and kicking them out of school. He says it was an accepted and expected practice.
“We couldn’t just sit around and allow this to happen. How else could we take care of everything else at this school when we expelled in the 30’s and suspended in the thousands? That just couldn’t be the way for a school this size, it didn’t seem right,” says Gomes.
Fresno Unified statistics show that although middle school students are less that 15 percent of the total district population, they made up 43 percent of all expulsions. Principal Gomes set out to change that.
“Usually, it’s when students can’t read, let’s open up a book that teaches students who lack reading skills. But there wasn’t so much for when a student is passive aggressive or angry in the classroom, disrespectful. Where’s the book that helps us deal with that,” asks Gomes.
Surprisingly, Gomes found the district did have some good training programs, like “Champs,” which addresses classroom organization, motivation and dealing with chronic behavioral problems. He also implemented principles from a program called “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” as a means to help adults and students connect with each other.
“I noticed right away that oh my goodness this is exactly what we need. Oh my goodness this is amazing training. What I learned quickly is that just like any other training, going to training is one thing, implementing the training is a complete other,” says Gomes.
That first year nothing changed. Gomes says teachers and staff did not buy into the program and he didn’t hold them accountable. Trying to change what he called a system wide approach to dealing with kids was tough.
“There is a re-framing that an adult must do. And I will tell you that’s hard. Kids are resilient, they change quickly, adults not so much. So I had to do a lot of changing myself,” says Gomes.
So they went back to square one, this time with the understanding it would not be business as usual. Gomes said they all had to come to the understanding that not all kids are taught certain character traits at home, things like sympathy, empathy, forgiveness.
“I am not saying we are teaching things outside of the educational realm. Because in teaching this, you’re solving classroom issues. Because how many times do you deal with kids not being able to forgive each other. That’s what causes a lot of conflict, right there. How about empathy? It has a lot to with how kids treat each other, and the teachers,” says Gomes.
But they couldn’t just teach it, they had to put it into practice, everyday.
“When she had us come up ideas, like with words to go by, I always thought it was a waste of time. But after a while, when she kept telling us to follow the rules, teaching us that, it really got in my head, to think about it and really follow it. And so I actually started trying to do it,” says 14-year-old Robert Moreno.
He says because of the social contract, he quit hanging out with gangs, stopped using drugs and started participating in more school activities.
“My behavior changed a lot since last year,” says Moreno.
A key component in changing behavior is building the relationship between teacher and student. Every morning kids get two minutes to share about their lives, the good and the bad.
“Some stories are really emotional. Teachers see how they behave because of, maybe it was a depressing childhood. And now teachers kind of open up to them and show them more love and everything,” says Byars.
That emotional sharing, along with high expectations and rules has changed the dynamics between the adults and the students. Gomes says it has created a family with positive outcomes.
“We’ve brought our expulsions down by about 75 percent our suspension rates about 70 percent those are not small numbers we are not just going 30 expulsions to 27 we are talking 30 expulsions in the past to an average, to now an average of four,” says Gomes.
Gomes said the road to how they got to where they are has not been perfect. It is hard work, but it’s worth it.
“You have classrooms that are working and focused. More importantly, they are not doing it because of fear but because of respect,” says Gomes.