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A Community-Corporate DL Partnership: Teaching Conflict Resolution to Middle School Students

The statistics are alarming: Violence, and especially teenage violence, has reached epidemic proportions. A 1995 article in Parade Magazine reported that "Someone in the United States is murdered, raped, assaulted or robbed every 16 seconds. Increasingly, these incidents are likely to involve teenagers and children."[1]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now consider violence a leading public health issue, to be treated like an epidemic. The Centers reported that gunshot wounds are second only to car accidents as the leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 24.[2] Firearm homicide is the number one cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.[3]

The public schools in Florida's Duval County (Jacksonville) have seen their share of violence among its students. The Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. (JCCI) noted in its 1994 study, "Reducing Violence in Jacksonville's Schools," that youth violence had increased 85% in the last eight years and that "the system lacks a comprehensive strategy to reduce school violence, including defined goals, committed funds and adequate evaluation."[4] Key recommendations in the study included:

  • The development of a violence prevention/conflict resolution curriculum,
  • Parent involvement, and
  • Community involvement/awareness.

This article explains how a regional, community-corporate partnership, the North Florida Distance Learning Consortium, addressed the recommendations identified in the JCCI study through an innovative distance learning project on conflict resolution for middle school students.

A Consortium Approach to Distance Learning
The North Florida Distance Learning Consortium, a unique blend of public-private organizations, was formed in late 1993 to find ways for its member institutions to collaborate and to share their distance learning resources to improve educational delivery.

Members include representatives of four local school districts (Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties); the Diocese of St. Augustine, a parochial school district; three higher education institutions (Florida Community College at Jacksonville [FCCJ], Edward Waters College [EWC] and the University of North Florida [UNF]); the local cable company and its subsidiary (Continental Cablevision and AlterNet); BellSouth, a telecommunications service provider; WJCT-Channel 7, the local public broadcasting station; and Cities in Schools, a national drop-out prevention program.

Consortium members met frequently in 1994 and were mobilized into action when news of a State University System (SUS) grant opportunity for distance learning demonstration projects became known. Having already identified the problem of youth violence in local schools, the consortium was challenged by the SUS proposal to meet the following 12 criteria:

  1. Demonstrate the benefits of distance education from the perspectives of learning, teaching, program administration, resource development and cost effectiveness;
  2. Result in increased access, improved and measurable productivity, economies of scale and positive return on investment;
  3. Develop an integrated learning package to be delivered through distance learning;
  4. Demonstrate how distance learning can be cost effectively used to address significant documentable statewide issues and opportunities;
  5. Involve collaboration of at least two of the three major sectors of education: the university system, the community college system and the K-12 system;
  6. Target a specific population or populations that can best be served through an instructional delivery system that represents an alternative to traditional classroom instruction;
  7. Be learner-centered as opposed to faculty or institution-centered;
  8. Employ a variety of responsive and appropriate distance learning delivery mechanisms using existing statewide telecommunications networks, infrastructures or services;
  9. Involve faculty and staff in developing and implementing the project;
  10. Include a dissemination plan for adapting, adopting, implementing and sustaining the project statewide;
  11. Include a detailed plan for the evaluation and continuous improvement of the project activities; and
  12. Demonstrate that the project can be sustained in a cost-effective manner beyond the expiration of project funds.

Confident that they could meet the challenges posed by the SUS guidelines, consortium members wrote a proposal for a "Distance Learning Demonstration Project on Conflict Resolution" that addressed each of the 12 criteria. The proposal included a budget of $590,000 with in-kind matches from consortium members pushing the total project budget to almost $750,000.

In February 1995, consortium members learned their project was one of five funded by the SUS. The project team quickly consolidated the consortium's resources and began work. The project involved six middle schools in four counties and had to be substantially complete by the end of the 1995-96 school year.

"The Project with a Heart"
Challenged by the alarming statistics on youth violence and energized by the financial and in-kind support from the SUS and consortium members, the project team embarked on what it calls "the project with a heart": helping young people to develop strategies to deal successfully with the inevitable conflicts they face at school, at home and in the community, and perhaps even saving young lives.

The project team comprised a project director, business manager, curriculum design specialist and multimedia design specialist. The team also used college students as "mentors," assigning a student to each of the six schools to assist teachers on technical aspects of the distance learning process.

After systematically researching the available violence-prevention and conflict-resolution curricula, the project team decided to write a new curriculum, one deliberately incorporating distance learning techniques. Entitled Take Two, their curriculum is tailored to a middle school audience and delivers a powerful message: There are peaceful and acceptable options to violence and there are severe consequences, including death, for violent acts.

Developed for Three Different Goals and Audiences
The project team developed the curriculum and distance learning project components for three audiences and for three specific purposes:

  1. Middle school students, to teach them conflict resolution skills;
  2. Teachers, to teach effective conflict resolution strategies and to teach distance learning methods and applications; and
  3. Parents and community members, to assist in supporting and reinforcing school-based efforts.

These components were delivered through several existing distance learning delivery systems available in the project's geographic area: videotape; one-way video/two-way audio; full two-way video/audio teleconferences; live and taped broadcasts, and cablecasts; and Internet access.

Components for a Student Audience
Consortium school districts each identified middle schools to pilot the curriculum and the distance learning delivery system for the 1995-96 school year. The consortium selected six schools that represented public, private, large/small and urban/rural populations. Located in four counties, the schools were from 10 to 50 miles apart.

The project team supplied the six participating schools with video cameras, sound systems, fax machines and cellular phones. Schools were also provided with ISDN lines and videoconferencing PCs for use between them. E-mail was another way schools' staff exchanged ideas with each other.

The team designed the student component of the curriculum to give students the skills necessary to resolve conflict on their own. In addition to traditional written materials, the curriculum included five "trigger" videotapes produced by the team. These tapes, using student actors, were open-ended vignettes. In each, a situation was developed, escalated to conflict, and the screen went blank. Students were then asked to use the skills they learned to resolve the conflict. Topics included boyfriend-girlfriend situations, rumors and gossip, parent-child relationships, sibling jealousy, parental trust, responsibility and peer pressure.

Three Virtual Field Trips Included
Another major component of the curriculum was the broadcast of three interactive video field trips modeled after the Turner's "Adventures in Learning" series and The Jason Project. Using one-way video/two way audio, our virtual field trips transported students to places they might not otherwise be able to go and enabled them to interact with experts in conflict resolution. Programs were aired live over the Jacksonville PBS affiliate, WJCT-Channel 7. The project team provided schools with advance materials to prepare students for each "trip." Programs had themes related to conflict resolution and included both pre-recorded and live segments.

Field Trip #1: The first trip focused on the legal consequences of unsuccessful conflict resolution. Using a remote video truck, students were taken, live, to the juvenile detention facility in Jacksonville. The signal was microwaved from the remote truck to WJCT-Channel 7, a consortium member. Students met detention center staff and viewed a videotape segment depicting life behind bars for young offenders. Participants were able to call or fax questions. More than 100 responses were received.

While doing research for this trip, the project team learned that many students, when confronted with conflict, will run rather than fight. This seems to be true more often for girls for than boys. As a result, the team included a feature on runaways in this program. A reformed runaway was at the studio, along with the program host, to answer students' questions.

Field Trip #2: The second video field trip featured Duval County Sheriff Nat Glover, who spoke of the methods police officers use to resolve conflict. Students learned that many were the same as those included in their course curriculum. It also let them see police as positive agents for their community. This program included a studio audience, and again students were able to call or fax questions to the TV studio from their classrooms.

Field Trip #3: The third field trip focused on the physical consequences of unsuccessful conflict resolution. This program included a doctor from the Trauma Center at Jacksonville's University Hospital and a staff member from Hubbard House, a shelter for abused spouses and children. Again, a studio audience and call-in questions from classrooms made this program come alive for hundreds of student and teacher viewers.

Another major component of the project was two-way videoconferencing. BellSouth provided participating schools with ISDN service and arranged for one of their marketing partners, V-TEL, to loan each school properly equipped PCs (having a video card to handle two-way video and audio teleconferencing). This equipment was used to conduct follow-up activities to the field trips. For example, one school with an established peer-mediation program used the teleconferencing capability to train students at another school to be peer mediators.

Student Use G'es "Outside the Box"
Project staff encouraged teachers to use the ISDN equipment in areas not related to the project as well. Some of the teachers' ideas were extremely creative. For example, students produced short introductory videos about their school using the VHS camcorders provided by the project and later exchanged these with other schools. The project's parochial school, St. Pius, used the Internet to find sites around the country that had videoconferencing capabilities. St. Pius students also met, electronically, with staff from a local hospital.

St. Pius students also located a professor in the Engineering Department at Virginia Tech with videoconferencing capability and began a dialogue with him. They then created a career awareness activity in which college students spoke with the middle school students about study habits, course selection and opportunities in engineering. As a result, Virginia Tech students instilled in the St. Pius students the idea that being from a disadvantaged background did not have to stand in the way of their success if they worked hard and stayed in school.

One of the project's inner city schools exchanged Black History Month activities with the project's rural school. Students at project schools also compared weather observations, in real time. They were able to chart their data and then use the system's document-sharing capability to manipulate that data. One school uses a peer-mediated teen court to "try" minor offenses. To get a totally impartial jury, the trial was transmitted to another project school over the ISDN equipment and students at the receiving school decided the outcome of the case.

Another project school used ISDN to connect students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program with people who speak their native language. Two project schools conducted follow-up activities related to the Jason Project. In addition, BellSouth provided a digital bridge that allowed multi-point teleconferencing, and teachers at project schools used this opportunity as a brainstorming activity to plan a training session.

One of the most important outcomes of this phase of the project was that students were able to meet, face to face, with other students from extremely diverse backgrounds and see that "they're just like us."

Components and Goals for a Teacher Audience
The teacher component had three overriding goals:

  1. To provide teachers with conflict resolution skills that they could use in their classrooms,
  2. To train teachers to implement the curriculum, and
  3. To teach them how to use the various distance learning technologies involved in the project.

Professional trainers from Duval County Schools staff conducted a three-day workshop on implementing the project curriculum prior to the beginning of the school year. In January 1996, the project team organized a one-day Technology Fair. Highlights included the use of high-speed cable modems, a one-way video/two-way audio fiber link to a remote site, and ISDN applications to demonstrate distance learning applications. Throughout the year, project staff, consortium members and vendor representatives spent considerable time training staff at the project sites.

Components for a Parent/Community Audience
Realizing that students' ability to resolve conflict is based on behavior learned at a home, the project team included a parent/community component in the project. The team realized a critical link in the project's success was parental reinforcement of the conflict resolution skills their children were learning.

To meet this challenge, the project team developed an abridged "Cliffs Notes" version of the curriculum for parents. The abridged curriculum and a specially designed refrigerator magnet with tips for conflict resolution at home were mailed to the families of all participating students.

To get the word out to the community, the project team and Florida Community College at Jacksonville produced five parent programs for cablecast. For each program, a panel of parents, students and teachers, along with a moderator, viewed two of the trigger tapes and discussed the results. Continental Cablevision, the local cable channel and a consortium member, aired these programs multiple times. In addition, the project team met with PTA groups and produced a project documentary for cablecasting and school use.

Dissemination and Cross Applications
One of the grant's criteria was that the project be replicable in other settings. Each of the project's major themes, conflict resolution and distance learning, has its own cross applications. In presenting the project to meetings and conferences around the state and the nation, the project team has received many suggestions for innovative applications. For example, the Take Two conflict-resolution curriculum could be adapted for use in the Department of Corrections for both adult and youth offenders as part of a pre-release program. It could also be used with prison staff to help them resolve the day-to-day confrontations. Another example was provided by a dean of a college of business at a major university; he suggested a conflict resolution component for business people be part of a graduate school program.

To ensure continued widespread use of the curriculum, the project team is currently producing an interactive CD-ROM to complement the Take Two curriculum. It can be used as part of an ongoing conflict resolution curriculum, part of a guidance curriculum or with the "reluctant learner."

Project Evaluation and Results
The evaluation component was designed to assess changes in attitude and behavior of students, teachers and parents in relation to violence prevention and conflict resolution from the period prior to implementing the project to the period after implementation. The project team selected Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. (JCCI), which conducted the 1994 "Reducing Violence in Jacksonville's Schools" study, to evaluate the project's success.[4] JCCI is a community-based, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that studies local problems and suggests solutions.

JCCI used a wide variety of methods to evaluate the project including focus groups at each school, teacher observations, parent anecdotes, school principal interviews, mentor interviews, and statistical data on incidents of conflict and violence at each of the six schools. The results showed:

  • Four of the six participating schools had a decrease in their total number of conflicts from the 94-95 to the 95-96 school year.
  • The majority of students learned new skills to resolve conflict and they are using these skills.
  • Teachers have increased their ability to deal with both student-student and teacher-student conflicts.
  • Parents and community members have increased their awareness of conflict resolution skills and prefer their children do not use violence to resolve conflict.

Some of the schools that participated in this project have a peer-mediation program. In all six schools, students who participated in the evaluation process overwhelmingly thought the peer-mediation process was a successful way to deal with conflict. Teacher questionnaires showed that in the schools with peer mediation, 50%-60% believe the Take Two curriculum increased the number of students who participated in the mediation program. Principals of these schools also believe the Take Two curriculum enhanced their peer mediation program.

JCCI also found that the student culture of the participating schools appears to be changing as a result of the project. The evaluation report noted that students are letting their peers know when they are acting inappropriately; are eager to learn about peer mediation and, specifically, how they can become peer mediators; and are reminding their peers that "violence never solves anything."

Evaluation of the project's distance learning component is ongoing. In general, the project team has reached the following conclusions:

  • Most teachers are excited about the concept of distance learning.
  • Some teachers rushed to the opportunity to try new technology and discovered many innovative applications. These were primarily teachers who were already familiar with, and making regular use of computers, the Internet, video, etc.
  • Students have no fear when it comes to the use of technology.
  • Teacher training in the use of technology is extremely important, and especially follow-up training. The best trainers are teachers who regularly use technology in their own classrooms to enhance instruction.
  • Teachers and students rank the video field trips as the most effective part of the curriculum. Unfortunately, their high cost in terms of time and money make them prohibitive in most cases. Our cost to produce the trip that included the remote truck was more than $5,000.

Summary and One Success Story
In just one school year, the Conflict Resolution Distance Learning Demonstration Project, created from a committed community-corporate partnership, has made a positive impact on six north Florida middle schools in terms of changed behavior and attitudes about peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. In addition, the project's participating school districts and the University of North Florida are now planning additional uses for the technology demonstrated during the project.

For example, UNF is planning more varied uses of its Instructional Television Fixed Services (ITFS) capability, including dual enrollment of gifted high school students in university courses. The Duval County School District has purchased several videoconferencing PCs for use by home- and hospital-bound students. The project team plans to distribute and market the entire Take Two curriculum package to interested school districts and other agencies.

But perhaps one of the most dramatic outcomes of this project has been the transformation that has occurred at one project member. St. Pius V Parish School, a small parochial school located in the Westside inner-city section of Jacksonville, was so "low tech" at the beginning of this project that it did not have a working fax machine and its computer lab was equipped with antiquated hardware and software. Thanks in large part to the energy and enthusiasm of its principal Sister Elise Kennedy, the school is now well on its way to becoming the "technology magnet school" for its school district, the Diocese of St. Augustine. When the project team visited St. Pius in May 1996 they observed students and teachers excitedly teleconferencing with students all over the country. What a difference a year can make!

Marcelle Lovett is the Dean of Continuing Education & Extension and Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of North Florida. A former administrator with the Duval County, Florida Public Schools, she is the Principal Investigator of the Distance Learning Demonstration Project on Conflict Resolution funded by the State University System of Florida. E-mail: mlovett@unf.edu

David Walzak, a former administrator with the Montgomery County, Maryland Public Schools, is Acting Distance Learning/ Credit Program Coordinator in the Division of Continuing Education & Extension at the University of North Florida. He is the Project Coordinator of the Distance Learning Demonstration Project on Conflict Resolution. E-mail: dwalza@unf.edu

References:

  1. 1995 article in Parade Magazine-
  2. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -
  3. National Center for Health Statistics -Fir

Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. - 1

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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