Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

1997

James Comer

Dr. James P. Comer receives the Heinz Award in the Human Condition for his profound influence on the lives of thousands of disadvantaged children through his visionary approach to public education.

His School Development Program has been instrumental in shaping the ways educators, administrators, and parents view their respective roles in improving the quality of America's schools. "The Comer Model," currently improving the educational climate in over 600 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, suggests that everyone with a stake in a school should have a say in how it is operated. It calls for forming a diverse school governance team made up of teachers, parents, principals, students, janitors, cafeteria workers, and psychologists. Together, this team develops a comprehensive school operational plan and then works together to implement it. A tireless advocate for children who brings an extraordinary mix of passion and patience to his work, Dr. Comer is part preacher, part scholar, and all parent.

Raised by parents who left him with no doubt as to the importance of education, Dr. Comer and his four siblings all graduated from college. He attended Howard University Medical School and, following his military service, settled on psychiatry as his specialty. Early on, he began to envision ways to motivate learning by creating a family-like atmosphere in schools.

Dr. Comer first put his ideas to work at the Yale Child Study Center. In 1968 his School Development Program was established in two elementary schools as a collaborative effort with the New Haven Public Schools. By 1980, the two formerly failing schools boasted an academic performance surpassing the national average and with sharp declines in truancy and disciplinary problems. A follow-up study tracked 24 students through three years in a Comer school and compared them with 24 students in another New Haven school. The "Comer children" were found to be more than a year ahead in reading and math.

In many communities, the Model has transformed what Dr. Comer calls the "culture of the school." Children, parents, and educators have forged alliances that have helped create better-adjusted, healthier, and more successful students. Not only has there been dramatic academic improvement, but major social improvements have also taken place. The many institutions that come into contact with children - like clinics, mental health centers, libraries, and child care centers - have learned to work in concert for the welfare of children. Now almost a cliche, this notion of "services integration" was one of many areas in which Dr. Comer was a pioneer.

With humility and dignity, and without an ounce of self-importance or vanity, Dr. Comer represents the embodiment of the virtues he works to develop in children. He set out to remedy a problem he sees as even more fundamental than lack of academic achievement in our inner-city schools: a deficiency in the three R's of a social kind - respect, responsibility and resiliency. "We're blaming the problems of society on the schools," he notes. "We failed as a society to invest in families and communities after World War II and, as a result, families began to not function as well and social problems increased, and many people weren't able to prepare their children for school. We then blamed the schools." Dr. Comer is not interested in ascribing blame, only in removing the obstacles that keep children from reaching their full potential.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.


UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD

January 2015 - James Comer receives the 2014 Sidney Berman Award from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. - Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

May 2011 - James Comer receives the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, at the civil rights organization's 94th Annual Freedom Fund Dinner. This year is only the second time the Greater New Haven Branch has named a recipient. - New Haven Register

October 2009 - Comer's new book, What I Learned In School - Reflections on Race, Child Development, and School Reform, is released from Wiley-VCH publishers. - Wiley-VCH publishers

December 2006 - Yale professor James Comer's innovative ideas in child psychiatry and his effective implementation of a groundbreaking education program earned him the 2007 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Education, the University announced Thursday. A child psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine, he was selected from among 32 nominations for the 17th Grawemeyer Education Prize, one of five $200,000 annual prizes recognizing great ideas in the arts, humanities and social sciences. - Yale Daily News

May 2006 - James Comer is a recipient of a 2006 Dr. John Hope Franklin Award, presented by the Diverse Issues In Higher Education magazine. James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H., the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine's Child Study Center, is recognized internationally for his efforts in supporting the healthy development of young people, has authored nine books, and written more than 400 articles on children's health and development and race relations. - Diverse Issues in Higher Education

James Comer