Barry Zito, David Lynch, Russell Brand meditate with students during Quiet Time at Burton High. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Barry Zito, David Lynch, Russell Brand meditate with students during Quiet Time at Burton High. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

For school teachers working in some of San Francisco’s toughest schools, giving everyday to work isn’t some new opportunity to shape minds, but another ruthless battle in losing war. An impressive and unlikely initiative seems to have changed things for the better, where conventional wisdom – be it in the form of social programs, tests or surveys – failed.

A pilot program introduced in several San Francisco schools so far, Quiet Time serves as a stress reduction strategy that aims to bring peace into the lives of troubled souls through meditation. Twice each day, a haunting gong gives the signal for adolescents that it’s time to shut their eyes and empty their minds.

Empty the mind first, fill it later

 

I’m as surprised as you – let me start by saying this. How can kids with today’s limited attention span willingly go along with this? We’re not talking about any other school in a quiet suburb. The Visitacion Valley Middle School used to be one of the worst scoring schools in the whole city, and it’s no real surprise why. Gunshots are depressingly common in the school’s neighborhood, and in the past month alone nine shootings have been reported. So many kids know someone who’s been shot or someone who fired the shot, that the schools had to employ a permanent grief counselor. Absenteeism rates were among the city’s highest and so were suspensions. If you strolled through the school’s corridors you’d have been met by walls littered with graffiti and, chances have it, you would have even witnessed a fight or two. Teachers were beginning to call in sick unusually often, battered by the ordeal. That’s how tough the situation used to be.

Superintendent Richard Carranza didn’t see the idea of Quiet Time as some new age bull. Instead, he agreed to give it a try – why the heck not? The program was first introduced in 2007 at Visitacion and a couple of other schools. Now, students here are doing a whole lot better. Suspensions fell by 45 percent, daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average and grades improved drastically. In fact, some 20% graduates are admitted to Lowell High School – an elite high school which only used to welcome a handful of Visitacion students before Quiet Time.

Peace of mind

 

These positive results seem to be consistent at the other locations where Quiet Time was introduced. Burton High School students, for instance, report far lower levels of stress than before and better self-esteem. Grads rose dramatically, especially for the students who used to underachieve the most. The San Francisco Gate reports that twice as many kids have become proficient in English compared to kids from similar schools, where Quiet Time hasn’t been introduced. Similar results for math. As for teachers, they’ve become less stressed and more inclined to do their jobs.

“The research is showing big effects on students’ performance,” says Superintendent Carranza. “Our new accountability standards, which we’re developing in tandem with the other big California districts, emphasize the importance of social-emotional factors in improving kids’ lives, not just academics. That’s where Quiet Time can have a major impact, and I’d like to see it expand well beyond a handful of schools.”

Personally, I’d love to see this in other schools as well. Quiet Time has been introduced in just a few schools, and while the number may be too low to infer a forecast on how well a whole district might do academically, the results we’ve been shown so far are more than promising. For some of these confused and frightened kids, however, a moment’s peace may have been all they wished for.

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