Cheryl Conroy GEAR UP Coordinator – Alachua County School Board

(Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a project funded by the federal government to help middle and high school students prepare for college. The goal of GEAR UP is to increase the number of students who attend college and succeed. Starting with 6th graders, during the 1999-2000 school year, students at Howard Bishop and Abraham Lincoln Middle Schools will have GEAR UP services available to them. The services offered by the GEAR UP program include mentoring, tutoring, counseling, parent workshops, after school programs, and field trips. GEAR UP will track students each year through middle and high school, adding new sixth grade classes to the program each consecutive year.

Cheryl Conroy has been professionally involved in education for 25 years. Her experience ranges from preschool programs to adult education. Working as a volunteer at an elementary school in Hawaii she observed the behavior of children doing the routine activities of the school day. Fighting and pushing was typical of the behavior that children exhibited in the various situations they encountered. Based on these observations Ms. Conroy realized that the central problem was that the children were not “emotionally literate.” She defined “emotional literacy” as knowing how to maneuver through the world without violence. The solution she visualized was to develop a curriculum to teach children the emotional and behavioral “tools” to relate to other people and empathize with their needs and express their own needs as well. The problem was that the children did not have a model for this behavior and were therefore unable to practice.

This more understanding attitude toward dealing with violent behavior is the basis of the Second Step program. Everyone working with children including parents should be trained in problem solving, empathy, and anger management. Even empathy can be taught. The great value in the program is the prevention of problems before they occur, before children become involved in violent behavior or crime and wind up in the juvenile justice system.

Ms. Conroy found that when she engaged the children in discussion about their playground conflicts that, rather than resistance, the children were actually eager to discuss and try to understand their problems the appropriateness of their behavior. This strategy was more successful for dealing with these problems than the authoritarian approach that was typically used by other teachers, ministers, and other people in charge of children’s activities.

Despite the value of the Second Step and other programs Gov. Bush has been working to cut funding for mental health programs for children. The Department of Juvenile Justice has moved violence prevention programs to a lower priority.

There was also some discussion of the reasons for the increased incidence of gun violence in schools. Some of the possibilities proposed were: increased access to guns, particularly among white, middle and upper class children; increased population and even the tension that results from more people per square mile; and copy cat and publicity seeking behavior. Lack of newspaper coverage of school violence in previous decades may make the current upsurge appear more novel than it actually is; newspapers did not consider such incidences newsworthy.