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Students Make "Connections" With Small School

Through Connections School's emphasis on peace issues and non-violent conflict resolution, teachers not only hope to foster a safer school environment, but also create change agents to send into a troubled Chicago neighborhood and the larger community. Included: Descriptions of a curriculum stressing peace, conflict resolution.

Within the typical hierarchy of missions for a public school, Connections has an additional goal of trying to change the world.

A kindergarten to grade 8 school within the Brian Piccolo Specialty School on the west side of Chicago, Connections is a school centered around the theme of peace. Students read books about peace, as well as learn to resolve conflicts without fists -- using dialogue, peer mediators, and the help of supportive faculty. The children sometimes are surprised to learn that other people in their neighborhood, or even the school building, don't respond to conflict the way they do, but Connections teachers think the training can pass from their students into the smaller and larger worlds in which they circulate.

Brian Piccolo Specialty School At A Glance

Total enrollment: 860
Grade levels: Pre-k to 8
Ethnic breakdown:
--80 percent African-American
-- 20 percent Hispanic
Title 1 School: Yes
Free and reduced priced lunch: 96 percent
Special education: 14 percent

And these are not always easy lessons to remember in an urban neighborhood where gang activity, violence, and drug use may not be part of students' immediate lives, but still touches them.

"We have a lot of angry kids," Kenneth Voorhees, Connections co-lead teacher and eighth grade instructor, told Education World. "But the kids who have been in Connections feel like they can express their feelings. They get to the point where at least at school they feel safe and can talk to each other."


Connections celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2005; it has taken much of its first decade to instill its culture and philosophy, Voorhees told Education World in spring of 2006.

Connections teacher Ken Vorhees demonstrates a Slinky to the class.
(All photos by Education World)

"I knew the students needed some conflict mediation program," said Voorhees, who has taught at Piccolo for 17 years. "So we established the peace philosophy and conflict resolution; it's taken about ten years for it to settle in. I wanted kids to have a connection to the school beyond the classroom."

Now, Voorhees said, the lessons are being passed on; he sees it in the ways the older students interact with the newer students.

"They do feel an obligation to the younger kids," Voorhees said. "They realize the importance of seeing both sides of a story. The sixth and seventh graders assume everyone can talk about things."

2006-2007 was the first year Connections students could stay in the program until graduation; an eighth grade class was added in September 2006. In years prior, Voorhees co-taught sixth and seventh grades and moved up this year to eighth grade with his students.

"I like that we are all connected together; were one whole group," said Shenica, 12, a sixth grader in 2006, who had been in Connections for seven years. "Most of my friends are in Connections. We learn conflict resolution; we learn to talk and work things out. If you fight, you just make things worse."

"It's a challenge to get their skills up and keep them up. Often the only help students get is at school."

Connections accomplishments have not gone unnoticed; in early April 2006, staff members prepared for a visit from the Chicago district's chief executive officer, Arne Duncan. "Spruce up, clean up, beautify!" urged one sign in the building.

Duncan was visiting in part because of an invitation from Voorhees. "I told him to come by, because schools don't often get recognized for doing the right things," he said. Voorhees also was one of the 24 teachers recognized by colleagues with the DRIVE (Delivering Results through Innovative and Visionary Education) Award, presented to Chicago teachers who demonstrate innovation in the classroom. The winners serve on a Teachers Leadership Advisory Board that meets with Duncan six times a year. "That helps you feel professional," Voorhees added.


In the schools earlier days, faculty members were able to include more about peace into the curriculum. "We would use a book of the month about peace, such as A Rainbow of Friends and all discuss it and decide on a project," Voorhees said.

A hallway in Connections makes the program's message clear.
(All photos by Education World)

Connections still maintains a Peace Council on which two students from each class participate. Council members read a book about peace every month and discuss ways to promote peace in their neighborhoods and in the world. "It's a natural progression of what they are doing," Voorhees added.

"We help solve problems and talk about what we can do to help the school," said Taniesha, 13, the Peace Councils president. "We talk about problems in the school and neighborhood."

Another Peace Council member, Laura, 13, said, "They [other students] look at us as role models. We learn new ways of solving problems without fists. We give tips on how to solve problems."

The other core part of the school's philosophy is an extensive, well-utilized peer mediation program. Students can train to be peer mediators starting in third grade. "The mediations are very structured," Voorhees noted. "Students have to document all their mediations. The hardest mediations are with the younger kids. The second graders are very angry."

About 75 percent of the mediations are related to "little nit-pick issues," he added.

Attending Connections and serving as a member of the Peace Council and as a peer mediator has changed her, Laura noted.

"There's a leadership quality that separates you from other kids," she said. "You see there are different things you can do with your life -- it shows you how to be a role model for younger students."


All of the Connections teachers also work together, support each other, and make an effort to get to know all the students.

"We are all responsible for everyone's kids," Voorhees noted. "I can stand at the top of the stairs and know every kid who comes in."

"I like it because its like being in a family of Connections," said Laura.

Working with teachers who have the same goals and expectations reduces some of the stress on individual teachers, added kindergarten teacher Consuelo Gaines.

"I love the support from the Connections team," Gaines, wearing a burgundy Winnie-the-Pooh hat, told Education World. "There is support for planning, discipline, what is going on with families, problem-solving, and grant-writing. Plus when I go on a field trip with another class, I know what to expect."

If she is having trouble with a student, she can send him or her to another teacher's class for a while or call on a mentor, Gaines said.

Kindergarten teacher Consuelo Gaines talks to her class.
(All photos by Education World)

Within the Connections circle, there also are literacy and character development programs and assembly performances, to name a few initiatives, she said. Her students also have seventh grade mentors.

"Before I was in a small school," Gaines said, "I was grasping for help all the time."

Expectations within Connections are clear and high, and discipline problems are limited, according to Voorhees. Students are expected to wear uniforms, which include a burgundy-colored Connections shirt.

During a math lesson in April 2006, Voorhees assigned teams of students to measure objects and distances in the classroom using the metric system. When the discussion volume got too high, be tapped on some wind chimes to get the students' attention, but students were focused and not disruptive.

"I like it because there's no violence. Everyone in Connections gets along," said Nathan, 12, who has been in Connections since second grade. "I've had Mr. Voorhees since fourth grade and he's a great teacher."


Connections was one of three small schools and a conventional school that operated within Piccolo, all under the leadership of principal Deborah Edwards. She started as a teacher at the school in 1978 and became principal six years ago.

"We learn conflict resolution; we learn to talk and work things out. If you fight, you just make things worse."

Small schools started in Chicago about 12 years ago and are designed so students get more personal attention in a smaller learning environment. Teachers often get more autonomy and can choose a theme for the school.

Parents decide whether or not to enroll their children in a small school. Some parents did not like them because of a 45-minute longer school day or because they thought the work was too hard, according to Edwards.

"The teachers in Connections also are very structured," she added. "They are organized, strong teachers."

But this year, all of Piccolo has been reorganized into small schools, Edwards said. "Parents think small schools are better -- better environment, better kids. This ensures that everything is the same; it's a unifying piece for the whole school community."

While each small school operates independently, for other purposes, Piccolo is considered one school. All of the teachers for one grade might plan together. Some after-school programs, like sports and the choir, are school-wide. Connections also offers some of its own activities, such as a journalism club and Incentive Fridays, which allows three kids from every class go to an after-school program.

Seventh graders work together on a measuring assignment.
(All photos by Education World)

The school as a whole also is on the federal list of schools in need of improvement; the test scores from all of the small schools are listed under Piccolo.


Students bring many challenges with them to school, and the staff members do their best to meet their needs.

"We have a lot of low-income families and the parental support is not what we would like," Edwards noted. "There are a lot of discipline problems. There are gangs and drugs in the neighborhood, but not at school. But they're in their lives."

The community relies on the school for a lot of services, she added. Many children enter Head Start and kindergarten with below-average skills. "It's a challenge to get their skills up and keep them up," Edwards said. "Often the only help students get is at school."

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Piccolo recently was able to launch tutorial programs through the No Child Left Behind Act.

The school offers a lot of professional development for staff members involving reading and math instruction. "We're trying to make sure we use proven methods," according to Edwards. Classes also are moving toward differentiated instruction. "We can't teach the same way to all the kids."

Faculty members are using more hands-on math with manipulatives, working on more cooperative learning projects, and using assessments to help them learn where children are in their learning and direct learning.

"There is not much in this neighborhood for kids; the families look to us for everything and we have stretched resources," Edwards continued. "The kids hate to leave; they stay at the playground after school."

But with no funding to pay for advisors or coaches to oversee extracurricular activities, the school has to rely on teacher volunteers.

"Knowing the community is the best way to connect with the kids," Voorhees said. "I try to learn what is going on and work one-on-one with them."

And teachers have seen children change; some who are new to the program may need some time to fit in, especially if they are older. "One boy joined the class in fifth grade; he had had the worst teachers every year," Voorhees said. "It took him a year to decompress and realize he had to learn and that school could be fun."



Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World
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