Comer, James P. 1934–
James P. Comer 1934–
Psychiatrist, educator, author
One of the country’s leading child psychiatrists, Dr. James P. Comer is best known for his pioneering efforts to improve the scholastic performance of children from low-income and minority backgrounds. Unlike most education-reform programs, which focus on academic concerns, such as improving teachers’ credentials and building students’ basic skills, the “Comer Method” emphasizes the development of children’s social skills and self-esteem. It was first introduced at two elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1968 as part of a “school-intervention” project organized by the Child Study Center at Yale University. “Our analysis of interactions among parents, staff and students revealed a basic problem underlying the schools’ dismal academic and disciplinary record: the sociocultural misalignment between home and school,” Comer explained in Scientific American. “We developed a way to understand how such misalignments disrupt beneficial relations and how to overcome them in order to promote educational development.”
In 1968, the year Comer and his colleagues began their work at New Haven’s Martin Luther King, Jr., and Simeon Baldwin elementary schools, fourth-grade students at both schools, 99 percent of whom came from poor, black families, were a year and a half behind their grade level in reading and math.
Attendance rates were among the worst in the system, and serious disciplinary problems made teaching all but impossible. Within ten years of the program’s implementation, attendance had improved dramatically, behavioral problems had disappeared, and fourth-grade students had achieved grade level in both reading and math. In 1990 the Rockefeller Foundation—encouraged by the overwhelming success of Comer’s approach within the New Haven schools and in other systems that had adopted his reforms—announced plans to spend five years and $15 million introducing the program in schools throughout the United States.
The second oldest of five children, James Pierpont Comer grew up in East Chicago, Indiana, where his father was a steel mill laborer and his mother worked as a domestic. Although neither parent had completed a formal education, the Comers—especially his mother, Maggie—took an active interest in their children’s schoolwork. In addition to phoning teachers to check on their progress and attending parent visitation days, they accompanied the children
At a Glance…
Born James Pierpont Comer, September 25, 1934, in East Chicago, IN; son of Hugh (a steel mill laborer) and Maggie (a domestic; maiden name, Nichols) Comer; married Shirley Ann Arnold, 1959; children: Brian Jay, Dawn Renee. Education: Received B.A. from Indiana University, 1956; M.D. from Howard University, 1960; and M.P.H. from the University of Michigan, 1964; postdoctoral study at Yale University, 1964-67.
Intern, St. Catherine’s Hospital, East Chicago, IN, 1960-61; lecturer, planner, and clinical psychiatrist, U.S. Public Health Service, Washington, D.C., 1961-68; Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, CT, assistant professor, 1968-70, associate professor, 1970-75, professor of psychiatry, 1975—, Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, 1976—; associate dean, Yale School of Medicine, 1969—; writer, 1968—. Military service: U.S. Public Health Service, 1961-68; became lieutenant colonel.
Member American Medical Association, National Medical Association, American Orthopsychiatric Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Child Psychiatry, National Association of Mental Health, Society of Health and Human Values, Associates for Renewal in Education, NAACP.
Awards: John & Mary Markle Scholar in Academic Medicine, 1969-74; Outstanding Service to Mankind Award, 1972; Ebony Success Library Award, 1973; distinguished alumni award, Howard University, 1976; Rockefeller Public Service Award, 1980; Solomon Carter Fuller Award; Harold W. McGraw, Jr., Prize in Education, 1990; Vera Poster Award, 1990.
Addresses: Home— 21 Kent Dr., North Haven, CT 06473. Office —Comer School Development Project, Yale Child Study Center, P.O. Box 3333, New Haven, CT 06510.
on trips to the library, to museums, and anywhere else that would stimulate their minds and build their confidence and self-esteem. Today, Comer identifies his parents’ interest and involvement as the keys to his family’s academic and professional success. Between them, he and his brothers and sisters have earned 13 academic degrees.
At East Chicago’s Washington High School, Comer earned top grades, sang in the chorus, and during his senior year served as president of the student body. Following his graduation in 1952 he went on to study at Indiana University at Bloomington. Here, at a racially integrated school far from the support and encouragement of his close-knit family, he was overwhelmed by feelings of fear and alienation. “All of a sudden I was a black, poor kid,” he recalled in an interview in the Washington Post. “I had to deal with racial antagonisms. My confidence was shot. I was petrified.” His experiences at Bloomington prompted him to apply to medical school at the predominantly black Howard University in Washington, D.C., rather than continuing at his alma mater. “I had to go where I was wanted, not where I was merely tolerated,” he recalled in his first book, Beyond Black and White (1972).
Living in Washington also opened his eyes to the plight of poor people of color—the substandard conditions under which many of them lived, and the despair and depression that often overcame them. Upon receiving his medical degree, he returned to East Chicago to complete his internship at St. Catherine’s Hospital. Whatever extra time he had he spent working at a clinic serving the city’s poor. Before long he had abandoned his original plan of becoming a general practitioner in his hometown in favor of working to improve the lives of disadvantaged people. “I didn’t want to simply give pills to people who were depressed because of social conditions,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post.
In 1961 Comer returned to Washington to spend two years working for the U.S. Public Health Service. During this time he also served as a volunteer at Hospitality House, an organization designed to help low-income families cope with a variety of social and economic problems. “There I saw families—mostly mothers and children—under stress and, as a result, children underachieving in school,” he wrote in Ebony. “And the school, usually unintentionally, was not making matters any better. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the youngsters in this program would be heads of households, or fathers without households, on a downhill life course. Every social casualty would make the quality of life worse in the Black community and in the country. It occurred to me that society must make schools work for such children, or we would all pay a high price. This concern led to my training in public health and child psychiatry, eventually working in schools and developing a preventive psychiatry program.”
After completing a master’s degree in public health at the University of Michigan in 1964, Comer began a two-year residency in psychiatry at Yale University. This was followed by a fellowship in child psychiatry. Shortly after he had completed his fellowship, one of his advisers asked him to help develop and direct a school intervention research project at two inner-city elementary schools. The project, organized by Yale’s new Child Study Center in conjunction with the New Haven public school system, was designed according to the belief that educational reformers could best develop their theories through direct observation, experimentation, and intervention in schools over long periods of time. “We decided to immerse ourselves in the schools to learn how they function and then, on the basis of our findings, to develop and implement a model for improving the schools,” Comer wrote in Scientific American. “We were guided by our knowledge of public health, human ecology, history and child development—and by common sense.”
In 1969 the children attending the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Simeon Baldwin schools ranked 32nd and 33rd in achievement out of 33 elementary schools in the city, with fourth graders lagging 19 and 18 months behind in both reading and mathematics. Attendance and classroom discipline were also among the worst in the city, the teacher turnover rate hovered close to 25 percent, and parents were angry and distrustful.
Comer quickly realized that the stressful conditions under which many of the students lived had prevented them from learning to socialize and play in the ways the schools expected them to, and that this, in turn, interfered with their learning. “Some of these children come from families that cannot give them…the elementary things they need, like how to say ‘Good morning,” Thank you, “Sit still,’ and all kinds of stuff,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. He added that teachers and administrators, many of whom were not trained to recognize this behavior as underdevelopment, often made matters worse by punishing students or labeling them as “dumb” or “unmotivated.” This in turn led to conflicts between teachers and parents, further widening the gap between home and school. “It was my feeling that the school had to join forces with parents to become advocates and developers of the children, as my parents had been for me, and as are most parents of children who succeed in school,” he wrote in Ebony. “We had to find a way to bring parents and staff together and to help create a climate that would allow children to develop the skills, desire, and confidence to succeed in school.”
In order to reduce antagonism between parents, teachers, and administrators and provide new direction and a sense of cohesiveness to the schools’ management and teaching, Comer and his colleagues created a 12-person governance and management team within each school, led by the principal and made up of elected teacher and parent representatives and a mental-health worker from the Yale Child Study Center. These teams were responsible for making decisions on a wide variety of issues, including the content and direction of the school’s academic, social, and extracurricular programs.
Not surprisingly, it soon emerged that strong, positive relationships between students and teachers were linked to better social adjustment and academic performance. In an effort to encourage the growth of these relationships, one team introduced a program called “Two Years with the Same Teacher,” which allowed students to spend an extra year developing their skills under the guidance of a teacher with whom they felt comfortable. Potluck suppers, book fairs, fashion shows, and other activities helped foster good relationships between parents and teachers and further reduce conflicts between home and school. This led to a decline in student behavior problems, which meant that teachers could spend less time disciplining and more time teaching.
By 1980, the year Comer’s group left the two elementary schools, fourth-grade students were functioning at or above grade level, attendance rates were among the best in the city, and serious behavior problems were a thing of the past. The program had become an integral part of the curriculum. Within a few years the New Haven school board voted to introduce the Comer Method at all 42 of the city’s elementary, middle, and high schools. School districts in other areas of the country, ranging from Prince George’s County, Maryland, to Norfolk, Virginia, and Benton Harbor, Michigan, have also adopted Comer’s reforms and experienced a similar improvement in students’ attitudes and academic performance.
His work received further recognition in 1990 when the Rockefeller Foundation announced its intention to introduce the Comer Method at ten elementary schools in Washington, D.C., followed by the rest of the district’s schools. The foundation’s proposal also called for the creation of special, university-based centers throughout the country designed to familiarize teachers, principals, and other administrators with Comer’s methodology, as well as for field-testing of a teacher-training program based on his ideas.
In developing the innovative educational reform program for the New Haven public schools, Comer drew much of his inspiration from his own life experiences and from the example set by his parents. He explained his philosophy in an article entitled “Educating Poor Minority Children,” published in 1988 in Scientific American. “In 1939 I entered an elementary school in East Chicago, Indiana, with three other black youngsters from a low-income community,” he wrote. “The school was considered one of the best in the district; it was racially integrated and served the highest socioeconomic group in town. All four of us were from two-parent families, and our fathers made a living wage in the local steel mill. We were not burdened by any of the disadvantages…commonly cited as causes of educational underachievement in poor black children. Yet in spite of the fact that we had similar intellectual potential, my three friends have had difficult lives: one died prematurely from alcoholism, a second spent a large part of his life in jail and a third has been in and out of mental institutions. Why did my life turn out better? I think it was largely because my parents, unlike those of my friends, gave me the social skills and confidence that enabled me to take advantage of educational opportunities.”
In addition to teaching psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and working to improve the academic performance of children from inner-city schools, James Comer has written on a variety of topics related to race, education, and parenting. In Beyond Black and White, published in 1972, he describes many of his own encounters with racism and attempts to understand the origins of racist attitudes. His second book, Black Child Care: How to Bring Up a Healthy Black Child in America —written in collaboration with Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, professor of psychiatry and dean of student affairs at Harvard University Medical School—focuses on the distinctive race and income-related issues faced by African American parents. (An updated and expanded version, Raising Black Children, was published in 1993.) School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project describes Comer’s groundbreaking work with the Baldwin and King elementary schools.
In his most personal work, Maggie’s American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family (1988), Comer recounts the story of his mother, Maggie, who rose from poverty in rural Mississippi to ensure that all five of her children were given the chance to obtain a college education. A dual autobiography, the book begins with Maggie’s childhood recollections and continues with the story of Comer’s youth, his education, and the evolution of his educational and social philosophy. “By sharing his mother’s vision, Comer manages to inspire while keeping the moralizing—and psychoanalyzing—to a minimum, allowing a warm and seldom-told tale to unfold,” wrote V. R. Peterson in People. Comer has also contributed articles to numerous professional and popular journals, and since 1978 has written a monthly column for Parents magazine focusing on the emotional and psychological problems confronting adolescents and their parents.
A full professor of psychiatry at Yale since 1975, Comer was named Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry the next year; he also serves as director of the Child Study Center’s Comer School Development Project and as associate dean of the Yale Medical School. The father of two grown children, Comer firmly believes that parents should take an active role in their children’s social and educational development, organizing their work and social schedules around their children’s school activities. This, he maintains, can help provide children from all socioeconomic backgrounds with the support and self-confidence they need to succeed.
Beyond Black and White, Quadrangle, 1972.
(With AlvinF. Poussaint) Black Child Care: How toBring Up a Healthy Black Child in America, Simon & Schuster, 1975, updated and expanded edition published as Raising Black Children, Plume, 1993.
School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project, The Free Press, 1980.
Maggie’s American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family, New American Library, 1988.
Contributor to professional and popular journals; author of a column featured in Parents magazine.
Comer, James P., Maggie’s American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family, New American Library, 1988.
Black Enterprise, October 1988, p. 95
Boston Globe, September 7, 1990, p. 71.
Ebony, August 1987, pp. 61-65; August 1990, pp. 34-38.
Essence, August 1992, p. 46.
Jet, October 14, 1991, p. 22.
Newsweek, January 25, 1993, p. 55.
New York Times, May 30, 1975; June 13, 1990.
People, November 28, 1988, p. 41.
Scientific American, November 1988, pp. 42-48.
Time, May 17, 1993, pp. 48-49.
Washington Post, August 10, 1986, sec. K. p. 1.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
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