Meditation program mends troubled Visitacion Valley Middle School

Every day before class, Visitacion Valley Middle School students pass an informal memorial known as the “R.I.P. wall,” a reminder of trouble that awaits them when the afternoon bell rings.

In 2004, two students discovered the partially decomposed body of a 19-year-old stabbing victim. Later that year, a gunman brazenly stormed into the school, threatened to kill a teacher and robbed two employees. In the 2009-10 school year, one-fifth of the students had one or both parents incarcerated.

“Everybody in this school was either related to somebody who has been shot, who did the shooting, or who saw a shooting,” said Jim Dierke, the school principal. “We had kids who couldn’t learn.”

In the spring of 2007, Dierke decided he would try a simple solution.

The quiet time program involves the ancient techniques of transcendental meditation, conducted twice daily in 12-minute sessions before and after class.

The first announcement comes over the school’s intercom around 8:45 a.m. — “Prepare for quiet time,” — and the teachers ring a little bell to mark the beginning of the exercise. Most students close their eyes; others cover their faces with their hands and focus on the repetition of a mantra.

“It takes away the anger,” said Charles Ollie, an eighth-grader at the school. “Your brain is like a lake holding in water, and when we meditate, the flood gates open and the water is released.”

Dierke and the school staff credit the program with reducing violence, increasing attendance and test scores and dramatically decreasing suspensions.

Other good things are happening, too, teachers said. The volleyball team made the playoffs this year for the first time in a long time, and some of the eighth-graders are making it into The City’s top high schools, such as Lowell.

Most of the annual $175,000 funding for the program is provided by the New York-based David Lynch Foundation, founded by the TV and movie director. The money is used to pay for dedicated staff to run the quiet time program.

Opponents call it “stealth religion” that violates church-state separation laws because of its association with Eastern religions, but advocates insist that the practice predates Hinduism by thousands of years.

“They come from broken homes, foster care and group home settings,” said Brian Borsos, a special education teacher. “This is a practice that helps them go back and face what they need to face. It’s a skill they take with them for the rest of their lives.”

Program is director Lynch's brainchild

A handful of San Francisco’s troubled public schools have turned to a transcendental meditation program known as quiet time to relieve high stress in students, made possible by grants from the New York-based David Lynch Foundation.

The TV and film director launched the foundation in 2005 with support from two surviving members of the Beatles and their former meditation instructor Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But foundation leaders say the practice has nothing to do with religion and is not a church-state separation issue.

Save some minor grumbling and initial skepticism, the San Francisco version of school meditation has not experienced nearly the opposition faced in 2006, when the foundation withdrew funding after parents at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael denouced it as a cult.

Bob Roth, the foundation’s vice president, said the programs in San Francisco have gotten better reception.

Ellie Rossiter, executive director of the nonprofit Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco, said she has heard no opposition to the program. Some of The City’s school officials have even provided testimony on the Lynch Foundation’s website.

“It’s an anchor, it’s a balance for them and I believe it opens them to learning,” Everett Middle School Principal Richard Curci said in a YouTube video.

Soothing results

The meditation program at Visitacion Valley Middle School was instituted in the spring of 2007.

45: Percent reduction in multiday suspensions for quiet-time students in program’s first year
85: Suspensions in 2005-06
10: Suspensions in 2009-10
2.5: Average GPA in fall 2006
2.9: Average GPA in fall 2010
40: Point gain in API score in testing in 2009-10

Source: Visitacion Valley Middle School

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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