June 2011
May 23, 2011

Building a culture of hope

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Forest Hills High School teacher Gary Kuchmeister, left, works with students in his Council for Unity class to till, plant, harvest, weed and water a community garden at a Queens family shelter. "We'll teach the residents and the shelter to take over and feed themselves," he said.

More than a thousand students are enrolled in elective classes at their schools to learn how to stop bullying, diffuse gang disputes, work through prejudice and become active, giving citizens.

Honor students, athletes, students in trouble, and students on the border of an unhealthy or even dangerous path are working with a four-tenet model from the Council for Unity that promotes family, unity, self-esteem and empowerment. The council, a not-for-profit 36-year-old organization, advances a culture that helps people find common causes and forge relationships.

"A negative culture cannot be defeated by temporary programs or skill-building activities alone," said Robert DeSena, former Brooklyn English teacher and founder of CFU, which provides curriculum, professional development and technical assistance to schools and community organizations. CFU site coordinators help educators who run anti-bullying and gang prevention programs in schools.

The results among participants are impressive:

  • Students have a 95 percent high school graduation rate.
  • Attendance improved by 80 percent.
  • Reported conflicts and student suspensions declined by almost 75 percent.

Andy Pallotta, Executive Vice President for NYSUT, which supports the Council, is a CFU board member. He started working alongside CFU as a District Rep for the United Federation of Teachers in the Bronx a few years ago.

"They have a great message and proven results," Pallotta said. "Bob DeSena is a charismatic leader and is dedicated to their mission.... which is to change lives."

Pallotta's predecessor at NYSUT, Alan Lubin, is also on the Council board.

Educators currently working with CFU students shared strategies at a conference on Confronting Gangs and Bullying hosted by the United Federation of Teachers. Currently the council is in 28 schools, primarily in New York City, where it is funded by the city's Department of Education; and in Riverhead on Long Island, where it is funded by the Suffolk County District Attorney's office.

Theresa Drozd, who oversees the CFU program at Riverhead, told conference participants that Riverhead began CFU eight years ago with 27 students after concerns about gangs began troubling students. Two months into the program, students came forward to report a brewing showdown between Latino and African-American students. CFU students helped facilitate meetings with the opposing groups during which each side learned the other was feeling oppressed, Drozd said. The showdown was averted.

Now, Riverhead has three classes of 25 students, each taught by Garrett Moore, a member of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, and a twice weekly after-school club of 40 students.

"The students can take the class multiple times. I often say that my classes are an adventure every day," said Moore. "There is no typical lesson plan. The students come into class with multiple issues and the class works to sort through them. I want the students to open up and share their stories."

For problems beyond the bricks of the school buildings, Riverhead students organized a town hall meeting with adults, clergy and other leaders. They did a presentation on their efforts, and asked the community to join them in changing attitudes and behaviors.

Community-wide activities include graffiti cleaning days, food drives and raking leaves for senior citizens. Students visit a prison to meet inmates who are now involved with Council for Unity programs during incarceration. They learn how the inmates' mistakes began and then spend days afterward discussing choices and consequences.

Queens Council for Unity teacher Gary Kuchmeister said students in his Forest Hills High School classroom learn how to make themselves, and each other, accountable, even for attendance.

Kuchmeister, a UFT member, has been holding council classes for four years since taking CFU professional development training.

"These classes help them work out issues they have outside of school. They get to interact on a personal level. It's integration vs. isolation."

Students build a network and support group. By making a safe space, students learn to open up. One student who was isolating himself finally disclosed his father was in prison. Classmates provided support, and offered to write to his father.

Students take on outdoor obstacle courses to face fears and learn teamwork. They work with the city parks department, and with a family shelter in Queens, where they are creating a community garden to grow organic food.

"We're going to teach residents at the shelter to take over the garden and feed themselves," Kuchmeister said.

The CFU model asks students to look at relationships they've been in — those that succeeded and those that failed — and examine their own behaviors. Teachers and students are asked to consider what kind of behaviors hurt the learning environment, and then decisions are made to change those behaviors.

Males and females are separated into groups, and each examines behaviors they use with the opposite sex that are mean, damaging or unsafe, ranging from teasing to destroying reputations on social networking sites. "Whatever the stuff is that gets them crazy," said DeSena.

The culture of the class moves from a climate of anonymity, to one of familiarity.
Because there is so much pressure in schools to "move the syllabus," DeSena said students' needs can be the last thing discussed. This causes many students to explode (become violent) or implode (cut themselves, become depressed).

Another CFU initiative is a school climate assessment. Students take blueprints of the school to assess where groups congregate, then conduct a survey on bullying, gangs and empowerment. Teachers, administrators and School-Related Professionals are surveyed about what they see as problems. Concerns range from student apathy, not enough security, dirty buildings, gang conflict, bullying or assignments not being turned in.

CFU's site coordinators — one for every four schools — then compile the data. Students set goals and objectives and become stakeholders. When they leave high school, they continue as lifetime members of CFU, which also has leadership and arts programs.

DeSena said he has witnessed students who "went from being racists and enemies to a band of brothers and sisters."