Friday, December 10, 2004

Hopped on BART this morning with two friends

to attend a meeting of (more) educators. This time the participants were directors of afterschool programs in San Francisco. The title of the two-hour workshop was "Youth Voices" and consisted of an evaluation of the Beacon Programs (a project of Stanford's Department of Education), plus a panel of 5 remarkable teens who were either participants in or graduates of Beacon's programs.

These were pretty typical teens; a young woman from Pakistan, 2 African American high school boys from Oakland; a generously body-pierced gay young woman who serves on the S.F. Youth Commission; and a very articulate male student graduate of Beacon who is now a member of faculty. They were all well-spoken and fine examples of kids who probably would have survived under whatever system they'd found themselves in; but this may be an unfair assumption.

Very soon it all began to sound very familiar. One of the disadvantages of being older is that so little is new anymore. The program description sounded like one of the many versions of Project Community, the research experiment my late husband developed out of Tolman Hall at UC. Berkeley 30 years ago with Dr. Shelley Korchin. This was where Bill and I met. I was an administrator. He was the principle investigator.

He'd come to the coast from Washington shortly after the Kennedy assassination. He'd worked as a part of a think tank associated with NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) under the Johnson administration. In the Sixties he came west to do a study that would look at the Flower Child phenomenon in the Haight-Ashbury. He would develop a drug prevention program at Cal. He'd arrived at UCB with grant in hand and about as exciting and timely an assignment as one could have in those days, if you were a research psychologist.

Bill was a part of that wave of scholars,educators, adventurers, and experimenters who arrived here believing they were in the world's most permissive and liberal place -- and made it so by so believing. That group included Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, Dr. Stan Grof (of the LSD experiments in Bethesda), Charlotte Selvers, Fritja Capra, Isaac Asimov, the founders of Esalan, Fritz Perls, Rollo May, et al. It was a heady time. Berkeley was radiating radio waves that were being felt around the world! The Zen Center was coming in to being. There was Green Gulch and Tassajara. Ken Kesey and the Pranksters were exploring and inventing new edges from their bungalows at Stanford. People like Uri Geller, Peter Coyote, WavyGravy and the Pig Farm were feeding the multitudes. Rupert Sheldrake (the Hundreth Monkey),Toni and John Lilly (of the earliest dolphin experiments) were emerging and changing the spiritual and psychological defaults! A succession of refugee Tibetan Lamas began to set up centers for studies where -- with a growing community of New Wave western scholars -- would explore the places where western physics and Buddhism converged. Out of their studies would come the books and papers that would change the way we all viewed at the world. This was the birth of the human potential movement -- and I was living right in the middle of it!

It was only natural that Project Community would draw on all of those influences, and it did.

The program at first drew its students from Berkeley's only high school. It was an afterschool, evening, and weekend program that was arranged so that groups of randomly-chosen small groups of kids met twice weekly with a team of graduate students from the school of psychology in intimate group sessions. In addition, each youngster also participated in what in a regular high school might be considered an elective. Here in Project Community this was the heart of the matter -- that which provided the alternative to the drug experience. They were invited to be "high" on life.

They did rock-climbing on Indian Rock high in the Berkeley hills with Lloyd. This providing rapelling as a way of learning trust. There was movement with Carolyn and meditation with Wendy. They traveled down to the Emeryville mud flats to create sculptures of debris that washed up on the shore from the bay. They took field trips to the wilderness where they did "Soloing" - where they were dropped off in a very large circle with the leader stationed at a campfire at the center - ever within reach in an emergency but unobtrusive, and never interrupting the "alone" experience. They returned jubilant or crushed, but with much material with which to work toward new goals discovered in the dark of night, alone.

In the years that followed, I've seen many fragments of Bill's work expressed in other programs. It was a groundbreaking format at the time. Youngsters stayed for a year or so in the program housed in our old frat house on the northern edge of campus, but the experiment had to move out of the Berkeley schools after a time because of the many kinds of exposures students were being impacted by at the time. Due to the tumult on the UC campus, it became impossible to determine how Project Community, alone, was impacting their lives. reliable measurements were impossible to achieve.


For the final 3 years of the 5 year experiment, we worked on 5 high school campuses in 2 counties; Napa and Contra Costa. We moved our work into two continuation schools and 3 regular high schools. The test results were far easier to track now, but it was those test results that eventually proved too difficult to interpret for funding justification.

The pre- and post-testing reversed the expected outcomes. The test results indicated that the comprehensive entrance survey suggested that kids were in a better shape when they entered than when the program ended. Strange, right? We could see quite clearly that they'd made great strides in both behavior and attitude. What had changed was that these free-spirited kids were entered as guarded and mistrusting . Over time they'd become close to their leaders and to one another and had developed a pattern of openness and integrity for the first time -- but at the end of the program! It therefore appeared that their behavior had deteriorated over time and that the program had actually done them harm!

That, and the fact that it is impossible to prove that something didn't happen because of what you did. I suspect that programs developed later found ways around this one, but I'm not sure how.

Small wonder that I'm so leery of standardized testing. Maybe we can't have standardized testing until we can produce standardized kids to whom we provide standardized resources!

(I think now of my recent visit from little Emily Fox with whom I lunched last summer - she's now living in N.Y., -- Emily -- and beautiful swarthy strongman-bottom-of-the-pyramid Jef Raz, who went on from Project Community to become a member of the Pickle Family Circus -- one of the earliest versions of Cirque de Soleil, or so I believe.

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