Saturday, June 14, 2008

Boys' Town Rome

On Friday, the whole class took a trip to the Boys' Town in Rome. The Roman Boys' Town was started by an Irish Catholic priest named John Carroll-Abbing just after World War II. From the tour that we received on the premises, we learned that the Boys' Town in Rome currently serves about sixty-five students who live on campus, but also serves other children who attend the public schools located there. The schools are open for the admission of students who are not living on the campus.

Boys' Town is particularly interesting from a pedagogical standpoint because the boys there run their own government and are allowed to make many of their own decisions. The picture above is of the town hall where the boys meet to make these decisions. They elect their leaders to two-month terms, decide who does what labor, punish each other for breaking rules, and can even expel other members of the community for behavior that is unacceptable. The current mayor of Boys' Town, a high school-aged boy from Morocco, explained that during meetings, only the citizens of the town are allowed to speak. Others, such as the adults that help run the facility, have to seek special permission to participate.

This hands-on learning is fascinating pedagogically. To be able to generate a stable community in which the students govern themselves is very difficult. A learning environment like this one makes the student councils and student governments that we are used to at home look laughable. Maintaining such a potentially volatile community successfully for so many years is a testament to the quality of the students and instructional staff at Boys' Town.

Historically, boys' town is even more impressive that it is today. At one time, the boys themselves participated in the building of the facilities buildings and in the production of the products that it sells such as wine. Child labor laws have put a stop to this practice, but to think that the citizens of Boys' Town in the fifties and sixties would have generated this community, gone to school, and worked economically profitable jobs is almost unbelievable. The expectations placed on most American students are far fewer. Seldom do American students work full-time, even through college, let alone through junior high or high school. To be able to do this and to collectively manage the health of the community is a lot to ask of even privileged students.

Today, the students spend less time working (they still do chores around the campus), instead, they learn a set of skills that are designed to make them desirable to future employees. For example, Toyota donated a couple computer labs to the school and the students attend computer classes and other technical classes. At the end of the curriculum, the students earn a technical certificate that is supposed to be recognized by employers in Italy as well as other European countries.

Another recent change for Boys' Town has come in the demographics of the student population. Increasingly, Boys' Town is being populated by boys from the Middle East, specifically Afghanistan. Today, over one third of the boys living at the campus (I was told twenty-three) are Afghans. This is a result of the violence there following the US invasion in response to September Eleventh. It is easy to forget that political decisions made in the United States, regardless of the merit or demerit, have real effects in other parts of the world, but this is one place where those effects cannot be so easily ignored.

1 comment:

Jennifer Biedendorf said...

Do you think the school/community succeeds because of the quality of students per se or, rather, that the students succeed because of the design of the school/community?