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UConn project helps Hartford youngsters
hone citizenship skills
(April 5, 1999)

rom the outside, the Burr School, a ponderous brick edifice built 84 years ago in Hartford's south end, looks like an anachronism.

But a vibrant academic life goes on inside these old walls. Burr School serves nearly 700 students, grades K through eight, and they are diversity incarnate. African American, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, they are the children of a community where both poverty and resiliency have left their marks. And they bring with them to Burr all the challenges that go with living in a multicultural neighborhood.

Challenge, indeed, might be the hallmark of schools like this. The task is to help kids acquire and sustain a sense of esteem and achieve their potential, despite inadequate resources. In that context, especially, diversity must be seen as a learning opportunity to be celebrated. In that area, Burr School is rich.

It is also rich in pride. Burr School backs up against a sprawling industrial strip that runs north from Brainard Road along Interstate 91. And it looks out over the gritty bustle of Wethersfield Avenue. Yet its old walls are free of graffiti. Its floors are clean. And its classrooms, populated with students whose ancestors came from all over the globe, are places of order and learning.

Promoting dialogue The nine seventh-grade honors students who have been meeting weekly since before Christmas are a representative cross-section of the Burr School's population. And their diversity is one of the strengths they bring to the novel project they've been engaged in for the last three months.

Typical Study Circle Ground Rules

What does it take to make a study circle work? Experts agree that groups shouldn't be too large. Eight to 12 participants is ideal, so long as the group embraces multiple points of view and the participants are actively committed to meaningful deliberation. Each meeting is moderated by a facilitator. And the entire program is governed by rules like these:

  • All views are valued.
  • The facilitator is neutral.
  • One person speaks at a time.
  • Listen carefully to others.
  • No name calling or insults.
  • Share speaking time.
  • Be open to changing your mind.
  • Dialogue vs. debate.

They are participants in a "study circle," one of several such collaborations between UConn and the Hartford school system that were inaugurated last autumn as part of the University's Hartford Schools Partnership.

Another study circle, led by UConn graduate Annie Strah, involves a group of bilingual students. A suggestion that emerged during the study circle is to develop materials about their home countries for incorporation into the Burr School curriculum, a proposal they plan to present to Principal Carlos Andino.

"The model for study circles was developed in Sweden," explains Len Krimerman, a professor of philosophy, who proposed the project last year in response to a request for proposals to help the Hartford schools.

Krimerman says the model had already met with success among groups of adults. "As many as a third of all Swedish adults have participated in at least one study circle. A privately funded facility in Pomfret, Connecticut, called the Study Circle Resource Center, has successfully run adult study circles nationwide for nearly 20 years. I wondered why we couldn't do this with students."

The concept is deceptively simple. Study circles are an attempt to create an orderly structure in which citizens can get involved in a sustained dialogue about the issues and challenges confronting them collectively.

A set of ground rules makes the dialogue possible.

Under the guidance of philosophy graduate student Mary Riley, the Burr honors students have made significant progress since they first met in December. "The study circle process was originally designed for adults," says Riley, who has been involved in public school education for 25 years. "There were challenges in adapting it for young people. They are developmentally different and the time frames are different from those for adult programs."

Nevertheless, she says, with some modifications the program has worked well. The students in the group have taken turns serving in the role of "facilitator," a key to all successful study circles. Adhering rigorously to the ground rules they collectively agreed upon at the outset of the program, they have explored a wide range of ideas about what they see as problems with their school and how to fix them.

"The project worked for these students on many levels," says Riley. "None of them had ever participated in a program like this before. It was an eye opener. We spent time looking at studies of students who have made a difference in schools elsewhere and examined the perception that 'we' can make a difference. This was very encouraging to them. The program gives them a sense of collective hope. By rotating the role of facilitator, they all get an opportunity to be the leader. And, at the same time, they learn what it means to participate."

The project has been a valuable learning experience for the UConn facilitators, as well. "We all felt the program had value," says Beth Coleman, an undergraduate majoring in philosophy and peace studies. "There were no student programs to model ours after. We were attempting to replicate the adult study circles and learning as we went. Some things worked better than others. What we learned about what works and what doesn't will be very helpful in designing student study circles for the future."

Encouraged by the program, Mary Riley's honors students hope to develop a student government for their school, something that doesn't exist now and is rare in elementary and middle schools anywhere.

"Our school is old and we want to find some ways to improve it," says Chelsea Oprysko, one of the study group participants. "We'd like to develop a student newspaper and look for ways to raise money," adds Arcides Nieves.

Since Chelsea, Arcides and the other study group participants will be at Burr School for another year, Riley is hopeful that they can bring at least some of their ideas to fruition. Although the school has no funds currently to support faculty guidance for a student council, Riley is looking for retired teachers who might volunteer to help the youngsters keep the study circle initiative alive.

Meanwhile, Krimerman hopes to continue expanding the project in the coming year at more schools. "One goal is to show that students can be effective citizens in school and thus prepare for effective citizenship later," says Krimerman. "We garrison kids for 12 years or more in schools where they have very little voice and then we wonder why do so few people in our society actively participate."

Krimerman sees the project as part of his mission as a philosophy professor. "An important role of philosophy is to empower people to relate to what they've been passively accepting - to show them a way to look at their world critically and, hopefully, to become engaged in improving it."

Jim Smith