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a Quiet Stress not only

contributes to violence and behavior issues, it impacts focus and

memory, fundamentally impairing a child’s ability to learn and make good decisions.

Transformation M

y 40 years as an educator have led me to an impor- tant insight: stress is crip- pling our schools. The

students at San Francisco’s Visitacion Val- ley Middle School, where I was principal for the past 12 years, face drugs, gangs and violence every day. Most of the students in our school have a family member who has been shot, who did the shooting, or who saw a shooting. The majority are on free or reduced-price lunch. Many have little or no parental support. On top of these extreme conditions,

there is the pressure to achieve and succeed in a fast-paced, chaotic world. All of these circumstances together compromise the physical health, and in turn the cognitive and psychological capacity, of our students. This pervasive stress also compromises our teachers’ ability to teach effectively and sur- vive in the teaching profession. As a result schools like ours have many

problems: low attendance, violence, low performance, and high teacher turnover. This pattern in low SES communities is so

14 Leadership

common it is almost an assumed outcome – the predictive power of demographics. In our case, students reside in zip codes 94124 and 94134. Based on these zip codes, our students’ ethnicity, and the fact that few of their parents attended college, educational researchers feel they can predict our stu- dents’ attendance rate, behavior, test scores, and overall academic achievement.

New initiatives fail to stem tension In the first eight years of my tenure as

principal we introduced many new initia- tives, engaging community organizations offering afterschool tutoring, sports, music, peer support and counseling services in an attempt to improve the school conditions. There was improvement, but at the end of 2006 there was still a lot of stress and vio- lence. Even though we established clear be- havior goals for all students and common standards for all teachers to uphold, high tension and turmoil remained, impairing

By James S. Dierke

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