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Yvonne Abraham

Closing the behavior gap

To a casual observer, all the kids in this third-grade classroom at Jamaica Plain’s Manning School seem the same. Bright and attentive, they are riveted by slides showing growing chicken embryos. Hands shoot up when teacher Maria Karloutsos asks for a math formula to show how many days remain before their own eggs, under a heating lamp in the back of the room, will crack.

This group includes kids who are among public education’s most challenging, children with severe emotional issues, the ones most likely to head for prison and welfare as adults.

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There was a time when these kids were routinely separated from others. In this little school, tucked in a bucolic spot near Faulkner Hospital, they’re in every classroom. Of the 163 students here, 30 have emotional impairments. They battle traumatic memories, mental illness, impulse control problems. One child came here convinced he had a monster inside him. Another kept taking off his clothes. Some have lost parents to murder.

But they learn beside high-achieving kids, many from middle class homes. And it’s working, with a couple of telling limitations.

In the last five years, the Manning has moved from a Level 3 school, a disaster, to one of the best-performing in the city. In 2013, impaired kids here scored better than general ed kids in some other schools, and they made up more ground.

“The story we tell ourselves about education is that you can’t do it with kids who can’t behave,” said Ethan d’Ablemont Burnes, the principal. “Our data says something else.”

How does the Manning reach kids with emotional issues? They have more teachers, most of them specialists. They know what works when each kid acts out: a stress ball, a walk in the woods, physical restraint. The school emphasizes community and accountability for everyone. Every student learns from a challenging curriculum, whole novels rather than single chapters, for example. Simply being around general education kids teaches impaired kids better impulse control.

“Slowly, we’re getting there,” said Chanell Simmons, whose son Addonis, a first-grader, battles impulsivity and aggression. “I see him being able . . . to express himself better with words, being able to listen, rather than react.”

The Manning is no Eden. Kids act out all the time, sometimes in threatening ways.

But being around impaired kids helps other students, d’Ablemont Burnes said. They learn compassion and focus. He believes they excel because of inclusion, not in spite of it.

“My daughter is much more empathic and understanding of differences than she might have been,” Nini Diana said. Every once in a while, Diana worries she’s exposing her fourth-grader to too much, doubts that are shared by some other parents. But most of them stick with this special place. It’s hard to argue with the test scores, with the quality of teaching, with the fact that kids are being reached here who would otherwise have been lost.

But for all its success, there are still nagging problems here, problems that testify to the intractable challenges all schools face. Yes, emotionally impaired kids have made huge strides, but the achievement gap still yawns at the Manning, 30 points wide.

That gap is about more than test scores. It’s about nutrition, vocabulary, stability at home, museum visits, and summer vacations.

Closing it “can’t just be a school issue,” said d’Ablemont Burnes. “This is a city issue. We need a coordinated approach, a la the Boston Miracle.”

Until that miracle arrives, there is only so much even a Manning can do to keep kids from the brink. And that should terrify us.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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