Bilingual School Beats Bullying With Diversity

By Jackie Bischof
October 12, 2008

Respect for others is important at P.S. 189.

The core virtue of the first month of the school year is “Respect and Responsibility.” You can see it in the artwork that covers the walls and the posters that spill over onto the halls and greet you as you walk up the stairs. Colorful pictures and essays in the schools three languages – English, Spanish and Creole – show appreciation for “Our Absolutely Perfect Names,” “The Constitution,” and “Helping Our Friends.” And you’ll certainly find this virtue in the school’s “10 Non-Negotiable Rules,” enforced on a daily basis. “We respect ourselves and others, and I mean everybody,” said Berthe Faustin, the school’s principal. “We expect that of the kids and of the adults too. I say to the kids, the bullies in this building are the adults, let’s be clear. We bully you in to enjoying learning, and loving learning.”

The school has a diverse multi-cultural population of 1, 110 students in Grades K to 8. It is a high performing school in District 17, scoring an A on its city report card and reporting far fewer incidences of violence than other schools its size.

While respect for others seems to come naturally at P.S. 189, other schools in New York City are struggling to spread this philosophy. In June this year, a Queens high school student punched a Sikh student in the face after trying to remove his turban. Incidences of intolerance, bullying and harassment are prevalent at schools around the city.
Mayor Bloomberg’s and Schools Chancellor Joe Klein’s response is regulation A-832, an anti-harassment initiative launched on September 3. Regulation A-832 builds on the City’s “Respect for All” initiative, a training program for staff on ways to identify and prevent bullying and discrimination. A-832 requires schools to appoint one person to whom children can report harassment and gives the school limited time to report and fully investigate incidences. It also requires the school to inform the children of an e-mail address where they can describe bullying incidents, and to train students and staff on what constitutes bullying and discriminatory behavior.

It is an initiative that P.S. 189 is not taking too seriously.

Berthe Faustin, the principal, believes that a culture of respect and open-mindedness has to be developed in the school, and that the Mayor’s initiative is redundant in a school that already teaches respect and tolerance as part of the core curriculum.

The school also encourages open communication between children and staff, encouraging students to report issues of harassment or bias.

This culture is something that P.S. 189 has had for years, said head of safety and discipline at the school, Frantz Lucius.
“These things are not new,” said Lucius. “Here, we have zero tolerance for bullying, and we deal with every little issue that happens. We also determine if the incidence happened because of discrimination, or something personal. We’re trying to create an environment where children feel they have someone to speak to. The initiative is good, but enforcement of respect is important.”

In P.S. 189’s 2007-2008 Learning Environment Survey Report, three-quarters of the students interviewed said they felt safe at the school.

The school runs a Core Virtues program from Grades K to 6, which incorporates a different character trait into daily teaching. Artwork, such as the pictures and collages that adorn the school’s walls, is created during this period. Children are encouraged to express their identity and share aspects of their culture, such as why they were given their first name.

Grades 7 and 8 have an Advisory Period. 8th Grade teacher Pierre Dubois, a former student at the school, helps to co-ordinate this period. Dubois thinks on his feet, discussing issues as they come up. Once he spent a week on cyber bullying, teaching students how to deal with incidences of Internet harassment that most teachers and family members aren’t aware of.

“We deal with overcoming obstacles,” said Dubois. “Learning to deal with your life, family issues, sexuality, diversity and conflict. It depends on the need of the school at the time, what’s happening in class, or what’s pervasive in the school.”

Dubois said the school has established a culture of open-mindedness because of the diversity of its population.
“The population is not homogenous,” he said. “The children tend to respect other cultures … we keep communication open, and create a bond with students so that they trust you and come too you when there’s a problem.”
Students are made aware of the processes that occur when a bullying incident takes place.

“We know that anybody who bullies suffers harsh consequences like suspension,” said 8th grader Andre Smith. “Nothing serious has happened to me, but once I was teased. I told the teacher, and they called me and the person involved in. He apologized to me.”

This ladder of referral is something the school sticks closely to. Teachers are the first to deal with various incidences that occur in and outside of a classroom. It usually stops there.

Guidance counselor Marie Grandpierre addresses incidences of bullying that are not solved in the classroom.
“The key is to explain to them that they have to respect each other,” said Grandpierre. “We put the two kids together and make them speak to each other, and say ‘it’s good that you’re dealing with each other.’”

When it appears that behavior might be learnt at home, a discussion takes place with parents who are often advised by the school to go to counseling or skills classes at community organizations.

“I would call parents in and explore with them their biases and what’s going on,” said school social worker Maria Delgado. “You can’t allow parents to mould their child to come into school and be prejudiced to each other.”
The same principle applies to teachers.

“They learn from us,” admits Faustin. “At times you wish they didn’t. Our own biases – they see them. We don’t want them to, but they do!”

Children interviewed at P.S 189 seemed happy and untroubled by discrimination.

Second grader John Williams knows what a bully is, and he knows that he’s not one of them. “It’s someone who’s mean because they’re not nice. I listen and follow the rules. There’s a boy in my class with different hair. No one’s mean to him,” he said.

Parent Teacher Association president Roger Richardson says the school’s insistence on parents and children following the ten non-negotiable rules, one of which demands respect for self and others, is what contributes to peace at the school.

“You don’t find drama outside the school. You can drop your kid off and feel comfortable and safe,” said Richardson, whose nine-year-old daughter attends the school. “There are language and cultural differences in the school, but we have one common goal: education. And the principal doesn’t take any nonsense.”

She may be strict, but Faustin makes a point of having an open-door policy. Stairs from the school’s entrance up to its main building lead directly to her office. Her doors are open constantly, and children wait hesitantly at the door for her to interrupt meetings to address them. Classical music competes with urgent staff requests.

“The only time I have ever closed my door in my seven years as principal was when Chancellor Joel Klein was here. He wanted to talk behind closed doors. Later I heard children walk past and say, ‘What’s wrong with Principal Faustin? Why are her doors closed today?’”

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