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Risking Peace at a Troubled School

Visitacion Valley Middle School

Grades 6-8 | San Francisco, CA

David Markus

Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)
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Meditation at this urban middle school has helped bring down truancies and suspensions and significantly reduce stress.

Every once in a while, when visiting a successful school, you see something that makes your jaw drop, something so extraordinary, you have to stop and make sure what you saw is actually what it appears to be. What stopped me was the sight of more than 200 middle schoolers sitting in silence, eyes closed, nearly motionless, meditating together for 15 uninterrupted minutes. It happens twice a day at San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Middle School. They call it Quiet Time.

Middle schoolers, sitting silently, hardly moving?


My own experience was that these are the years when everything goes slightly "kaflooey." Academic pressures ramp up, peer pressure gets crazy weird, and that Mack truck called puberty roars through your body like a runaway diesel. And that's in the best of circumstances.

At Visitacion Valley Middle School, no one remembers the best of circumstances. Perched on the side of a grassy hill in the windswept southeast corner of San Francisco, the school overlooks a neighborhood that has been battered by violent crime, drug trafficking, and chronic neglect for generations. And that has everything to do with why the kids are meditating.

Stress in their lives is off the graph. Family income in the neighborhood is far below the city average; nearly 90% of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Over a two-year period, some 41 residents were shot to death. According to school principal Jim Dierke, almost every child in the school knew one of the murder victims, knew one of the shooters, or had actually been in the vicinity of one of the crimes. Frightened students were literally running to and from school each day. Suspensions and truancy rates were shooting through the roof. As teachers clamored to be reassigned, the school seemed to fall into the grip of something no one could control.

That was when Dierke made the decision to launch Quiet Time, partnering with the meditation experts at the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE), a San Francisco-based nonprofit foundation. The center studies the positive social and emotional impact of meditation in reducing stress and making students ready to learn. They recommend -- but do not insist on -- the meditation technique known as Transcendental Meditation (TM)*, developed by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s and famously embraced by four rockers named John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the late 1960s.

Dierke knew his solution was out of the box, and he anticipated some resistance at school, mostly because he wanted the faculty not only to support the program, but also to be trained in meditation and Quiet Time techniques. While there was some teacher skepticism, it was tempered by a we-have-to-do-something understanding of the seriousness of the school's predicament. To paraphrase one teacher: When you're drowning and someone is about to throw you a life preserver, you don't refuse because you're not sure the preserver floats.

All but two teachers voted to go forward with the program (one retired and the other eventually changed sides). In much the same spirit, nearly every family signed the permission slips for their children to participate. Next came the district office downtown. With the overtones of spirituality and religion that trail in the wake of any discussion of meditation, Dierke wondered how San Francisco Unified School District's superintendent of schools Carlos Garcia would respond. The superintendent wasted no time stepping into line with the parents and teachers. "We studied it and learned that Quiet Time is a thoroughly secular practice. It helps make it possible for students to learn, helps them feel calm and comfortable in the classroom," Garcia explains. "There is nothing religious about it." (Download the Quiet Time Primer

PDF 178KB.)

And so, in spring of 2007, Quiet Time came to Visitacion Valley Middle School. And very little has been the same since.

See how meditation and the Quiet Time program are helping to improve the culture at Visitacion Valley Middle School. Comment on this video, download, and more

The CWAE provided four permanent teachers to train the staff and students who wished to participate. Because deeper and deeper annual budget cuts made it impossible for the district to pick up the costs of the program, the David Lynch Foundation, active proponents of TM and other scientifically-proven stress-reduction techniques, picked up the tab.

In the five years since the program was launched, truancy rates have dropped by 61 percent, and suspension rates have been cut in half. Schoolwide grade point averages among the students have gone up half a point from a C to a B-. And in a district survey, Visitacion Valley students reported some of the highest levels of satisfaction among San Francisco middle school students. Student performance on state standardized tests has see-sawed, but what my gut tells me and from what I observed in multiple classrooms, learning engagement and retention are improving significantly.

But it is when you listen to the students recount their experiences with meditation that you can't help but stand in awe. Says one eighth-grade girl, "I still hear gunshots in the street, and I know I have to be careful. When I was in elementary school, I was scared. Now I am not afraid. I can close my eyes in Quiet Time and know I will be safe. I can clear out of my mind the things that make me nervous. And when I open my eyes, I can go to my class and feel calm and listen and write."

Similar programs are in practice in more than a dozen states, most prominently Pennsylvania and California. In-depth research efforts are underway to measure overall impact. The hope is that if enough of these efforts show sustained results, funding priorities may change, and programs such as Quiet Time could find a place next to blended learning, English-language learning, and other strategies that make a substantive difference for students who face a steeper path to success.

Meanwhile, hope burns bright -- and dies hard -- in Visitacion Valley.

* Transcendental Meditation® and TM® are registered or common law trademarks and are used under sublicense.

Table of Contents: Reducing Student Stress

This blog is part of a Schools That Work installment featuring Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, California. Learn more about how they're working to reduce student stress with the links below.

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David Markus

Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Duncan Work's picture
Duncan Work
parent of home schooler, then college student, now grad student

The fact that this program, and others like it, have been showing real results for five years: Quite amazing! I'm also aware of the extensive scientific research on Transcendental Meditation at medical schools and other research organizations around the world. However, it's great to be able to validate the research in a tough situation with the experiences of students, parents, and teachers.

I also recognize that it's a brave step for a school and community to take. Thanks for taking the risk and creating a living example of the possibilities.

Alice's picture
health and wellness educator

Hearing the kids describe the relief they get from meditating nearly made me cry. I hope more schools can do this program.

tlccabin's picture

Such a great story and life altering news for these kids...and their kids, etc.
Seriously inspired. TM has certainly been my stress management tool of choice for the last 10 years and it's awesome to see educational systems waking up, stepping out of the box and taking positive action to support their students...our future! Love it!

Daisy's picture
Inner city elementary teacher

It is nice to read that something out of the box was thought of and able to be tried. Even if test scores are not stable, definitely these students gaining a peace of mind is grand enough. Everything else will follow.

Stuart Knoles's picture

A possible awkward question arises: might the same proportional improvement seen at this school come about as well in any school where this approach is replicated? Investigation to determine if this may be true would be warranted by the magnitude of the implications. Yet, this question seems to be avoided; for it could then entail education improvement rightly owed the students, otherwise, an administrator must justify why that amount of improvement is being be withheld from their school.

Mary-Helen Rossi's picture
Mary-Helen Rossi
Business Director at Merge Education

I'm wondering if today's policy makers (you know, those in charge who require scientifically valid statistics produced after at least a decade of study before they'll condone any change) could possibly commission a study on environments that value caring - or sensitivity to students - or treating students as individuals?

There's no time for such soft stuff, I realize, and what they've been requiring for the past few decades has worked so well that of course we should continue making changes that are simply variations on the theme, but gosh, if meditation is actually helpful (of course, that will require more study, just to be sure), perhaps some of the basic principles of the traditions from which it evolved might be worth looking into?

CraigB's picture

Powerful video! These kids, teachers and administrators were using, as far as I know, the Transcendental Meditation (TM)program. TM is different from other forms of meditation. It would be wrong to assume that other techniques called "meditation", even though they are practiced quite differently, produce the same results as TM. TM produced the results in this school. If other forms of meditation have produced similar results then they should be shown independently of the TM results.

Stuart Knoles's picture

The appearance of something at this time that actually works and with such efficiency and dramatic effect, may be so unexpected as to be disregarded or overlooked. Moreover, a viable education innovation implemented at a "bottom" school is even more out of place. And although this country has advanced and prided itself on embracing something primarily upon the virtue that it works, and although the how and why of the mechanics of this approach, how it has arisen, and numbers of individuals with the expertise to implement it has been for present for some time, it would appear that chronic problems in education may yet be in coexistence with their unrecognized solution. A great deal at stake may be inferred: the amount of life potential salvaged in these students, for one. Crucially important then, would be to identify and reproduce the means by which this effect has been brought about. And if in fact it is systematic and reproducible, then education may now have the key to something immensely valuable. Inspiration is nice, but results are needed promptly. Progress cam be convoluted, and now it may take seemingly unconventional measures to break through the old structure.

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