We live in an individualistic age. As Marc J. Dunkelman documents in his book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” people tend to have their close group of inner-ring family and friends and then a vast online outer-ring network of contacts, but they are less likely to be involved in middle-ring community organizations.
But occasionally I stumble across a loving, charismatic and super-tight neighborhood organization. Very often it’s a really good school.
You’d think that schools would naturally nurture deep community bonds. But we live in an era and under a testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion. Even when schools talk about values, they tend to talk about individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function, not the empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart.
Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about their personal achievement or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievement – individual over the group.
But there are some schools that nurture achievement precisely by building tight communities.
The Denver School of Science and Technology has an intense values-centered culture, emphasizing values like respect and responsibility. Four days a week everybody gathers for a morning meeting. Those who contribute to the community are affirmed. When students have strained the community, by being rude to cafeteria workers, for example, the rift is recognized, discussed and healed.
Last week I visited the Leaders School in Brooklyn, New York, which is a glowing example of community cohesion. This is a school with roughly 300 students who speak between them 22 languages. Eighty-five percent are on free and reduced lunch. Last year the graduation rate was an amazing 89 percent and every single graduate went to college. The average SAT score was 411 math and 384 verbal.
The school’s approach and curriculum is organized by Outward Bound. (The New York Times’ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., once was chairman of the NYC Outward Bound Schools chapter.)
When the students arrive at Leaders as freshmen they are assigned to a crew, a group of 12-15 students with an adviser. Right at the start they go on a wilderness adventure, and go through a process of “storming, norming and performing.” As they learn to cook for each other and deal with outdoor challenges, first they fight, then they come up with community norms, and then they perform. The crew stays together for the next four years, supporting each other with family, romantic and academic issues.
Students are given tremendous responsibility, and are put in challenging social circumstances that call forth compassion, judgment, sensitivity and mercy. If one student writes something nasty about another on social media, then the two get together with two student mediators and together they work out a resolution. If there’s a serious infraction that would merit a suspension at another school, the guilty party meets with a Harm Circle, and they figure out some proper act of contrition and restorative justice.
One day each December the community gathers outside the school and the seniors march as a unit with their college application letters through cheering crowds and to a waiting mail truck.
Most classes are conducted through Socratic dialogue. Students learn to negotiate disagreements. They get academic grades, but also leadership grades that measure their character. The students lead their own parent-teacher conferences. They stand up before their parents, a teacher and other observers and they give a presentation on their successes, failures and how they might improve.
I was amazed by how well the students had been trained at group discussion, using a talking and listening method they call “Step Up/Step Back.” “Let me build on what Shazzarda was saying …” one student would say. If a member of the group had been silent for a few minutes, somebody would pull her in: “Maybe Essence is the best person to explain that …”
Most of all I was struck by their kindness toward one another. No student could remember any racial or ethnic conflict. Many upperclassmen serve as peer mentors to the underclassmen. There’s a palpable sense of being cared for. That’s in part because the school has a wide definition of student achievement.
Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, once wrote, “It is the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible denial, and above all, compassion.”
All over the country there are schools and organizations trying to come up with new ways to cultivate character. The ones I’ve seen that do it best, so far, are those that cultivate intense, thick community. Most of the time character is not an individual accomplishment. It emerges through joined hearts and souls, and in groups.