Cherokee Point Elementary Changes the Face of Education through Compassion
Principal Godwin Higa implements a program that focuses on his students’ whole development, not just academics
Hunger diminishes focus. Abuse cultivates anger or withdrawal. Neglect fosters apathy. When a child endures any one of these traumas at home, that child is more likely to become distracted and perform poorly at school. And when a child performs poorly or lashes out at school, he or she is often given up on by adults.
In a study conducted through the Pierce County, Washington juvenile justice system, one-third of the teens with the most troubled childhoods were kicked out of school before they were nine years old. Without a nurturing school environment that fosters learning for every child, a student’s poor performance can lead to a grim future that starts with suspensions, expulsions and dropouts. When adults give up on its underserved youth population, they eliminate opportunities for growth in the school system, and children are often led down an even darker path toward the penitentiary system, self-abuse through drugs or alcohol, chronic depression, and even illness and death.
One San Diego school is trying a new approach to its disciplinary system to turn the ill fate of underserved youth around. Instead of punishing students through expulsion or suspension, Cherokee Point Elementary School Principal Godwin Higa favors more supportive methods of problem solving, including compassionate, solution-oriented alternatives to resolve conflict, improve grades and ultimately give students who were once on the road to self-destruction onto a path headed for success.
Higa’s philosophy is centered on meeting his students’ whole development – including their social, emotional and physical needs – not just their academic requirements. In City Heights, 60% of the population is low income and 70% of the population comprises of immigrants who do not speak English or do not speak it well. Higa, who grew up in similar circumstances to many of his students, knows that if a child is hungry, abused or scared at home, he will neither focus during school nor be enthused about learning.
“We need to know if that child rides the bus for 45 minutes each way, if he has to dodge bullets in his neighborhood, if both parents work two jobs, [or] if he has to cook supper and take care of his siblings until late at night, the last thing he’ll do is homework,” said Higa. “Our job is not only to teach, but to understand children so well that we teach them based on their needs.”
The school’s initiative focuses on getting to the root of a student’s lack of attention, disorderly conduct or social anxiety by focusing on the whole child, not just the visible academic consequences of his or her poor home environment. Teachers and school administrators work on preventing potentially longstanding issues, not on employing short-term fixes. Instead of harsh discipline, students solve problems by discussing them like adults with teachers, peers and Principal Higa himself to get to the root of an issue. Instead of suspensions and expulsions for poor academic performance, students get extra attention and classroom assistance through Saturday school or summer classes. To ensure students are able to focus on a full stomach, every one of the school’s 570 students get a free breakfast in their classrooms each morning.
Solutions like these have drastically improved the vitality of the school’s learning environment, increased the focus and enthusiasm of its student population, and enhanced the overall health, well-being and participation of the families in the City Heights neighborhood. The change did not happen overnight, and the school is not done finding ways to improve its performance and participation. There are still hurdles to overcome and programs yet to be enacted, but the school has come a long way.
When Higa first implemented his campuswide initiative in 2008, he had the full support of his teaching staff and administrators, but he lacked outside support. That changed, however, in February 2011 when City Heights was selected to be part of a 10-year, $1 billion California Endowment Grant that aimed to restore peace in communities with high crime rates. Thanks to the “Building Healthy Communities” grant, Cherokee Point Elementary School is able to fully enact its vision to change the face of its community one student at a time.
Now, 100 backpacks laden with healthy snacks go to home with 100 students each Friday. The San Diego Food Bank drops off 4,000 pounds of produce to families of students every other week. Every child gets a dental checkup, physical and eye test once a year. Fourth and fifth grade students collaborate in an after-school leadership training program with student-teachers, parents, high school and college students and other local community members. Parents are more involved, assisting teachers in classrooms, monitoring kids on the playground, or taking computer or English classes. What could have been a system that turned its back on students who needed help the most, has flourished into an environment that supports its community’s growth in countless ways.
At Cherokee Point, academics is not an afterthought; it is the path to success. School is not seen as a place to wreak havoc or lash out; it is seen as a safe haven for students and a resource for the community. Poorly performing or behaving students are not seen as hopeless cases; they are seen as students with a unique potential to succeed. The teachers and staff at Cherokee Point realize that they cannot give up on students who need them most. Instead, it is the adults who must change their ways in order to affect the outcome of their children.
Cherokee Point is just one of more than 23,000 schools nationwide that is taking steps toward creating a safe, supportive and engaging learning environment for all of its students. Many of these schools have not only seen a drop in suspensions and expulsions, but they have also seen diminishing instances of bullying, tardiness and truancy. Furthermore, graduation rates, test scores and grades are on the rise in schools that are implementing these new supportive approaches to discipline.
We are inspired by schools like these for their efforts in changing the face of education to encompass even those students who have endured extreme stress and potentially traumatic childhood experiences. We admire the hard-working leadership at Cherokee Point Elementary for giving hope to these students and not giving up on them. In order to support Cherokee Point as it continues its path to success, visit the school’s fundraising page on DonorNation, where a portion of all sales benefit the local school and its initiative toward creating a brighter future for the youth in City Heights.