By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Two teachers are taking a new approach to changing school culture, and it appears to be working.
The method teaches students, not teachers, to take the lead.
Paul Dean and Bobby Erzen started the Student Leadership Project after completing their commitment to “Teach for America.” After graduating college in 2008, the duo spent time teaching in inner-city schools in New Orleans.
And while there, they learned there was a major problem with school culture.
“When I was in the classroom, 80 percent of my time was devoted to being a coach and a police officer,” says Erzen. “Only 20 percent of my time was devoted to instruction and finally when I got a classroom culture that was really focused on learning, the students were then eager to learn. Then I was finally able to do the job I came to do.”
When Dean’s wife decided to attend Penn law school, he and Erzen moved to Philadelphia and started SLP.
The nonprofit organization partners with local charter schools to impact school culture from the bottom up, working with influential students in the sixth through eighth grades.
“We work with student leaders whose main job is to get their peers to understand that learning is really important and that’s what they are going to spend their time on,” says Dean.
These leaders attend after-school workshops, outings, and leadership training sessions that teach them how to positively influence their peers and to help their teachers without being disruptive.
“Student leaders will give shout outs to other students- often students who struggle with behavior- if they are doing the right thing to encourage them to continue the positive behavior,” says Dean.
They also call out students who exhibit bad behavior and use non-verbal cues to help direct students to correct their behavior.
So far, SLP has implemented their program in two schools: Kipp West Philadelphia in 2011, and Young Scholars Frederick Douglass in 2012. SLP coaches teachers and principals in the method so that teachers and students can work together. And so far, it seems to be working.
“Our suspension in the first year was probably in the 200s,” says Onome Pela, principal at Douglass. She says the school has 800 students in grades K-8 and been a scholar academy for three years. “Now I think we’re probably in the teens, 20s. We’re really, really low.”
Fourteen-year-old Cierra Taylor is a seventh leader at Douglass. She’s seen a change too.
“There are less fights,” she says. “And more people come to school to learn and not just to see their friends.”
As for whether Cierra and the other student leaders are the reason?
“People do look up to me- they see if I do something good and they follow my steps,” says Cierra. “But they’ll also call me out if I do wrong, so I have to be on point all the time.”
Cierra likes the changes since these days; the “cool” kids are the student leaders in SLP.