Published: Watts School Improves Safety, Reduces Violence December 1, 2008 SEATTLE—For students in a Los Angeles school “right in the middle of Watts,” school has a different atmosphere than it did four years ago. Office referrals are down. Attendance is up. And school is a safer place to learn. In fact today, instead of being a place where students experienced a culture of “selfishness,” Florence Griffith-Joyner Elementary School is “really, really, really a great place to be,” says Assistant Principal Nieves Rascón. Principal John Sayers concurs. What helped bring about such a change? The educators point to the implementation of a curriculum that teaches students the skills of empathy, impulse control, and anger management. The program, Second Step: A Violence Prevention Program, is used in dozens of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools with similar results. Florence Griffith-Joyner Elementary is located across the street from Jordan Downs, the third largest public housing project in Los Angeles. About 90 percent of Griffith-Joyner’s 1,100 students live in the projects, and most of the families face economic hardships. “For them to survive in this type of community,” Rascón adds, “they had to fight their way through.” And they often did. Principal Sayers remembers the school during his first year as “a place where learning took a back seat to survival.” That survival instinct was reflected in the school’s discipline problems. In that first year, Rascón said she “just felt like I was drowning. I was literally in my office all day, student after student. And it wasn’t just a fight; they brought a gun, they brought a bullet, they brought a condom. I had students on the floor. I had students in the corner of my office. I had students I had to drag in here because they were throwing a fit, students bringing a knife. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into.” Rascón and Sayers knew something had to change. The opportunity came when the school was invited to join the district’s Model School Program for the implementation of Second Step. The Model School program, which involves 40 LAUSD schools—many of which are in high poverty communities—supports and requires member schools to participate in training, data collection, and program observation and management. Most schools that participate in the Model School Program see positive results the first year. In the second year of implementation, most of LAUSD’s Second Step Model Schools see an average decrease of 45 percent for office referrals, 43 percent for physical aggression, and 64 percent for disruptive behavior. In addition, 58 percent of the model schools increased 30 points or more on the Academic Performance Index (API), more than double the district average. A school’s API is a number that is calculated from the results for each school’s students on statewide tests. Florence Griffith-Joyner Elementary had similar, if not better, results. Called a “model” Model School by Karen Sorensen, the LAUSD Safe and Healthy Schools coordinator who founded the Model School Program, Florence Griffith-Joyner Elementary referrals went from more than 1,200 in the first year to 268 last year, their third year. “It just kept decreasing every year. So this year, our goal is to get to 150 or less. And it looks like it’s happening,” says Rascón. But it’s not just the numbers that tell the story. Principal Sayers says the program has had an effect even on attendance. “”It is a very calm, safe environment. We have one of the highest attendance rates in the district because the students know they are safe.” “It’s because of Second Step that we have more opportunities to talk to students in a productive way instead of the only contact that we have is because they’re in the office or misbehaving in the yard. They’re just more conscientious of each other. There is no longer this culture of selfishness, this, ‘It’s mine. You don’t touch me. You don’t look at me.’ It’s not like that anymore. It’s really beautiful here,” Rascón says. Model School founder Sorensen is hopeful about the future for other schools and their students: “If all schools would implement similar Second Step schoolwide strategies that enable students to master the empathy, impulse-control, and anger management skills taught in this program, not only would our schools be safe and our students achieving academically, but we would authentically begin the process of halting the cycle of violence in our communities.” Second Step: A Violence Prevention Program is produced by Committee for Children, a 30-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the social-emotional development, safety, and well-being of children through education and advocacy.