For nearly 50 years, Dr. James P. Comer has promoted the idea that healthy child development—social and emotional, as well as academic—is the key to positive academic outcomes and better schools. What's more, Comer has insisted that schools alone cannot do the job; educators, parents, and the broader community must join hands to make these changes possible.
This is the idea behind the Comer School Development Program (SDP), which began in 1968. And it's also the idea behind numerous education initiatives created since then. If you were to name the top grand strategists behind progressive efforts to help students over the past generation, Comer would certainly be among them.
Of course, Comer's way of seeing the world is not exactly in favor among many ed reformers these days, which put the focus squarely on improving schools and teachers.
But Comer is still going strong, and his ideas have spread far and wide over the years. He also has some powerful allies in the funding world, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which recently awarded him $600,000 for a project to create a collaborative model of child development and education that would bring together the New Haven Public Schools, Southern Connecticut State University, and the SDP to foster a culture of student development and learning that will prepare all students, regardless of background, for academic and life success.
Comer hopes the project will help inform policymakers about better ways to prepare the education workforce. Comer is the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine's Child Study Center.
In addition to being the founder of the SDP, Comer has long been a powerful voice for child development and education. He is the author of nine books, including Beyond Black and White, Black Child Care (with Dr. Alvin Poussaint), Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can't Solve Our Problems and How We Can, and Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today's Youth for Tomorrow's World. Comer has also been a consultant to the Children's Television Workshop (producer of Sesame Street) and a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. He also has been a member of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future since 1994.
In 2014, President Obama appointed Comer to the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. In addition, Comer has served on numerous other education commissions and panels.
The SDP is not a program or just another add-on to a plethora of existing K-12 programs and interventions. Rather, Comer promotes the project as an operating system, a means of organizing, planning, and coordinating activities. Comer's SDP began in 1968 in two of New Haven's lowest-achieving schools, campuses which eventually rivaled the city's wealthiest schools for achievement, attendance, and student behavior. Since its beginnings, Comer's SDP model has been implemented in more than 1,000 schools in the U.S., South Africa, Ireland, England, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The theory of action underlying the SDP is that the model exerts direct and indirect effects on classroom, school climate, and school organizational factors, transforming the school into a learning environment that builds better student attitudes, behavior, and academic outcomes.
You can see why the Kellogg Foundation is behind Comer. His collaborative approach to child development and education is consistent with Kellogg's own approach to education funding, which emphasizes community-based efforts that recognize a shared responsibility among parents, schools, and communities.