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March 23, 2011 | Linda Lutton, WBEZ Chicago

Creating calm in Chicago's schools

Changing the culture of place is not an easy assignment. At Manley Career Academy High School on Chicago's poverty-racked West Side, a lot of hard work is happening in Room 113, known as the Peace Room.

A third of Manley students have visited the Peace Room to resolve conflicts with other students or teachers this year. Eighty percent have come before any physical fight.

What ends up being the most important by far is the quality of relationships that students have with teachers and teachers have with parents

"So that if a student is starting to get angry, teachers, security staff know [that] this is a space where students can come. We'll de-escalate, talk to them about stuff, and we have the resources to be able to do that around students this year," Zafran says.

Manley is one of six "focus" schools getting around $1 million for its culture transformation. It's part of an $18 million effort launched by Chicago Public Schools to counter the culture of violence in homes and neighborhoods with what it's calling a "Culture of Calm." The district hopes the program, which will eventually be in 38 of the city's most troubled schools, will produce more learning and students who feel safer.

Many of Manley's Culture of Calm efforts are being led by the Umoja Student Development Corporation, a nonprofit housed inside Manley.

Researcher Elaine Allensworth of the Consortium on Chicago School Research says two upcoming studies show the district is right to focus on school culture.

"Schools that are serving the same types of students with the same backgrounds can have very different climates. What ends up being the most important by far is the quality of relationships that students have with teachers and teachers have with parents," Allensworth says.

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