Risking Peace at a Troubled School
Every once in a while, when visiting a successful school, you see something that makes your jaw drop, something so extraordinary, you have to stop and make sure what you saw is actually what it appears to be. What stopped me was the sight of more than 200 middle schoolers sitting in silence, eyes closed, nearly motionless, meditating together for 15 uninterrupted minutes. It happens twice a day at San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Middle School. They call it Quiet Time.
Middle schoolers, sitting silently, hardly moving?
My own experience was that these are the years when everything goes slightly "kaflooey." Academic pressures ramp up, peer pressure gets crazy weird, and that Mack truck called puberty roars through your body like a runaway diesel. And that's in the best of circumstances.
At Visitacion Valley Middle School, no one remembers the best of circumstances. Perched on the side of a grassy hill in the windswept southeast corner of San Francisco, the school overlooks a neighborhood that has been battered by violent crime, drug trafficking, and chronic neglect for generations. And that has everything to do with why the kids are meditating.
Stress in their lives is off the graph. Family income in the neighborhood is far below the city average; nearly 90% of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Over a two-year period, some 41 residents were shot to death. According to school principal Jim Dierke, almost every child in the school knew one of the murder victims, knew one of the shooters, or had actually been in the vicinity of one of the crimes. Frightened students were literally running to and from school each day. Suspensions and truancy rates were shooting through the roof. As teachers clamored to be reassigned, the school seemed to fall into the grip of something no one could control.
That was when Dierke made the decision to launch Quiet Time, partnering with the meditation experts at the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE), a San Francisco-based nonprofit foundation. The center studies the positive social and emotional impact of meditation in reducing stress and making students ready to learn. They recommend -- but do not insist on -- the meditation technique known as Transcendental Meditation (TM)*, developed by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s and famously embraced by four rockers named John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the late 1960s.
Dierke knew his solution was out of the box, and he anticipated some resistance at school, mostly because he wanted the faculty not only to support the program, but also to be trained in meditation and Quiet Time techniques. While there was some teacher skepticism, it was tempered by a we-have-to-do-something understanding of the seriousness of the school's predicament. To paraphrase one teacher: When you're drowning and someone is about to throw you a life preserver, you don't refuse because you're not sure the preserver floats.
All but two teachers voted to go forward with the program (one retired and the other eventually changed sides). In much the same spirit, nearly every family signed the permission slips for their children to participate. Next came the district office downtown. With the overtones of spirituality and religion that trail in the wake of any discussion of meditation, Dierke wondered how San Francisco Unified School District's superintendent of schools Carlos Garcia would respond. The superintendent wasted no time stepping into line with the parents and teachers. "We studied it and learned that Quiet Time is a thoroughly secular practice. It helps make it possible for students to learn, helps them feel calm and comfortable in the classroom," Garcia explains. "There is nothing religious about it." (Download the Quiet Time Primer)
And so, in spring of 2007, Quiet Time came to Visitacion Valley Middle School. And very little has been the same since.
The CWAE provided four permanent teachers to train the staff and students who wished to participate. Because deeper and deeper annual budget cuts made it impossible for the district to pick up the costs of the program, the David Lynch Foundation, active proponents of TM and other scientifically-proven stress-reduction techniques, picked up the tab.
In the five years since the program was launched, truancy rates have dropped by 61 percent, and suspension rates have been cut in half. Schoolwide grade point averages among the students have gone up half a point from a C to a B-. And in a district survey, Visitacion Valley students reported some of the highest levels of satisfaction among San Francisco middle school students. Student performance on state standardized tests has see-sawed, but what my gut tells me and from what I observed in multiple classrooms, learning engagement and retention are improving significantly.
But it is when you listen to the students recount their experiences with meditation that you can't help but stand in awe. Says one eighth-grade girl, "I still hear gunshots in the street, and I know I have to be careful. When I was in elementary school, I was scared. Now I am not afraid. I can close my eyes in Quiet Time and know I will be safe. I can clear out of my mind the things that make me nervous. And when I open my eyes, I can go to my class and feel calm and listen and write."
Similar programs are in practice in more than a dozen states, most prominently Pennsylvania and California. In-depth research efforts are underway to measure overall impact. The hope is that if enough of these efforts show sustained results, funding priorities may change, and programs such as Quiet Time could find a place next to blended learning, English-language learning, and other strategies that make a substantive difference for students who face a steeper path to success.
Meanwhile, hope burns bright -- and dies hard -- in Visitacion Valley.
* Transcendental Meditation® and TM® are registered or common law trademarks and are used under sublicense.
Originally published 2/22/12 © Edutopia.org; The George Lucas Educational Foundation.