"When I was a junior in high school, I was dealing with a hectic upbringing, which in turn made me act out in school," said Hagar Abuella. Her adviser told her to join the Council for Unity, where she became a group leader and then a class leader. Now, Abuella is a teacher. She just finished her second year in the classroom and her first year immersed as a leader in her own Council For Unity after-school club.
Abuella, a member of the United Federation of Teachers, clicked with the CFU group because she knows about being in need. She works with students who are bullied, loners or on a slippery slope of trouble. That's where CFU gains its strength — meeting individual needs through group interaction and teacher guidance.
CFU celebrated its 40-year mark in June at an induction ceremony on Long Island. It now has student programs in 35 schools from Long Island to New York City to Buffalo. Its graduation rate is 97.3 percent, according to former Brooklyn teacher Bob De Sena. He founded the organization in 1975 when he stood with six gang members who hated each other during a time of "horrible racial conflicts all over the city."
His philosophy? "If you bring everyone together, there's no one left to fight; no one left to make fun of."
At the ceremony, De Sena told the 1,000 teachers and inductees they have created a united human family of tolerance. "Our kids realize that they are today what the world needs to become tomorrow," he said.
CFU promotes four tenets: family, unity, self-esteem and empowerment. Teachers help students find common causes that work as tinder to help them build relationships. Anti-bullying and gang prevention are consistent themes in these interactive classes, where students role play and use peer mediation. They literally look into the face of their own cultural bias.
"They practice it right in the classroom," De Sena said.
CFU can be a course for credit in English and social studies; or it might be an after-school program. It is also used in several prisons. Seventeen full-time CFU staff based out of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn provide training and support. They work with teachers on lesson plans and help organize school CFU executive boards and committees; meet with principals and community stakeholders; and help identify problems in the school.
"The students were immediately engaged and excited to have a class that wasn't like any other they had previously experienced," said English teacher Alona Geller, UFT, who taught CFU at Sheepshead Bay before the school closed. She hopes to bring the program to Fort Hamilton, where she now teaches.
Geller worked with one student and his family for two years; he was in a gang and "living the fast life." It showed — while he should have been in the 11th grade, he was two years behind.
"The CFU family played a pivotal role in his success, as it provided him with a safe environment to discuss and confront issues that caused his downfall," Geller said. The student went on to lead an anti-bullying presentation at a conference, and graduated on time. This same CFU group also brought together "a victim and a villain;" the latter said he thought by becoming a bully he would gain power, respect and popularity.
In the council, students examine consequences of positive vs. negative peer groups. They learn how to make relationships work, and how to identify abusive behavior. They deal with roiling emotions created by difficulties with friends or family.
"Their need for family, safety and self-esteem are at the core of the council," De Sena said. In some schools, the entire school is in the council; others have a few classes participating.
"Teachers in CFU are like lightning in a bottle," he said.
Queens teacher and UFT member Lisa Mesulam leads a CFU class. She trained for a week, and attends follow-up retreats and workshops. CFU staff join the class twice a week.
Mesulam recalls a boy who was a truant and runaway from an abusive home situation.
"He thrived in council to the point that (his) mom also got involved. The mom eventually left the dad who was the abuser and both she and [her son] went on to be safe and happy," Mesulam said. "There are so many more students who, in front of my eyes, did a complete metamorphosis."
In Nicole Correira's CFU class at Central Islip High School, many students live below the poverty line, some have family issues, and some face the struggles of assimilating into a new country and culture. "We are a very diverse population and in our district we look at it as a strength," she said.
Council helps students to be heard. They are given time, space and guidance to deal with problems relevant to their lives, while building communication and interpersonal skills. Group activities, volunteering, public speaking and writing help foster tolerance and understanding, said Correira, a member of the Central Islip Teachers Association. "The district and the union have been very supportive of the program."
As a second year teacher, Abuella is still dancing with the fear of failure, but her desire to lead CFU motivates her to push through that.
"I always knew I wanted to do this, I just did not know how," said Abuella, the former CFU student who now teaches on Staten Island. She got busy. At a Million Trees event in Great Kills Park, 50 CFU students and parents planted more than 100 trees; students gathered 90 boxes of garments and donated them to Project Hospitality; they collected 4,500 cans of food for the Hunger Games Can Drive Challenge; and got 100 board games for Games for Grandma. They've held career workshops and collected more than 200 dresses for the Prom for All dress drive.
"They come, they have so much fun with all the projects that they tell all their friends to join. Unfortunately, I had to put the cap at 60 students or else I would have 100, which I do not have room for," Abuella said.
DID YOU KNOW
NYSUT joins CFU in its antibullying agenda through successfully advocating for passage of the Dignity for All Students Act; hosting statewide anti-bullying conferences; creating an LGBTQ task force; and publishing information about bullying. For more info, visit www.nysut.org.
FOR MORE INFO
For information about establishing a CFU program, email firstname.lastname@example.org; visit http://councilforunity.org/; or call 718-333-7270.There is a charge for programs outside of NYC.