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A Philadelphia School's Big Bet on Nonviolence

Jul 22, 2013

from the article by Jeff Deeney in The Atlantic: 

Last year when American Paradigm Schools took over Philadelphia's infamous, failing John Paul Jones Middle School, they did something a lot of people would find inconceivable. The school was known as "Jones Jail" for its reputation of violence and disorder, and because the building physically resembled a youth correctional facility. Situated in the Kensington section of the city, it drew students from the heart of a desperately poor hub of injection drug users and street level prostitution where gun violence rates are off the charts. But rather than beef up the already heavy security to ensure safety and restore order, American Paradigm stripped it away. During renovations, they removed the metal detectors and barred windows.

The police predicted chaos. But instead, new numbers seem to show that in a single year, the number of serious incidents fell by 90%.

The school says it wasn't just the humanizing physical makeover of the facility that helped. Memphis Street Academy also credits the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a noncoercive, nonviolent conflict resolution regimen originally used in prison settings that was later adapted to violent schools. AVP, when tailored to school settings, emphasizes student empowerment, relationship building and anger management over institutional control and surveillance. There are no aggressive security guards in schools using the AVP model; instead they have engagement coaches, who provide support, encouragement, and a sense of safety.

The size and immediacy of the drop will strike some as suspect, but Memphis Street Academy stands by accuracy of their numbers, saying that they are required by law to report the same types of incidents any other school must report. Nothing about the reporting process or the kinds of incidents that must be reported was changed. And while many charter schools are criticized for "creaming," i.e. taking only the best students and transferring those with behavior problems or disabilities to other struggling public schools, the Memphis Street Academy and the Alternatives to Violence Project insist that wasn't the case, here. The conditions of their charter required them to pick up exactly where John Paul Jones left off.

Carolyn Schodt, a registered nurse at Alternatives to Violence who also runs AVP inside Graterford State Prison, says, "We did this with the same students, same parents, same poverty. In one school year serious incidents - drug sales, weapons, assaults, rapes - went from 138 to 15.

...It didn't change anyone's mind; in fact, it proved an opportunity for Memphis Street Academy CEO Dr. Christine Borelli, herself a neighborhood native who spent part of her childhood living with her grandmother at Kensington & Somerset, one of the most notorious drug corners in the world, to begin the process of reaching out to the community and building relationships with families. Her willingness to come on the block and get cooperation from distrustful neighbors proved crucial.

"I don't just fit in here, I'm from here. I'm proud to be from here. When I go out to look for a student who's not coming to school I run into people I know. Parents appreciate that you're not fearful of the community."

Many educators have come to question the value of the oppressive security measures that predominate in big urban public schools like Philadelphia's: metal detectors, barred windows, windows that open only a crack ostensibly to keep objects or people from being thrown out of them, and militaristic security staff that roam the hallways demanding documentation from students not in the classroom.

...American Paradigm pitched a new way forward on the safety question to AVP, when asking them to come on board as a partner. Rather than aggressive security guards patrolling the hallways, American Paradigm wanted a network of "engagement coaches" whose job is to be continually interacting with children in a supportive instead of punitive role. Engagement coaches were recruited from Troops to Teachers, a program that trains veterans as educators. The vets provide a strong role model presence that makes children feel secure. AVP agreed to also train the engagement coaches in nonviolent conflict resolution, so their job is to help mediate disputes rather than dole out punishment. Since the children trust their engagement coaches, the school is able to get ahead of potential conflicts: coaches often get advance word, for example, when something's about to go down in the hallways.

...When asked about the security changes at Memphis Street Academy a ten-year-old fifth-grader sums up her experience: "There are no more fights. There are no more police. That's better for the community."

Read the full article.

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Phyllis Lawrence
Phyllis Lawrence says:
Jul 22, 2013 05:14 PM

This is a great story. And several of my friends from the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP)are among those who did the training. I'd like to commend AVP to folks interested in or doing RJ, because it nicely dovetails. Many folks have been trained in RJ practice in schools or the justice system but haven't found ways to actually practice. If that is the case for you - as it was for me for a long while, I highly recommend your seeking out AVP in your state or country. It's an all-volunteer (and I mean ALL - no staff, no office, only volunteers facilitating workshops in the community and in prisons, and some taking leadership to help coordinate. What is particularly restorative is that for the prison workshops, both inside (i.e., prisoners, no staff) and outside (free world) volunteers take the Basic Workshop (usually 20+/- hours over a few days)together and can go on to take the Advanced, and possibly the Training for Facilitators. Then workshops are facilitated by teams of inside and outside folks. So its very inclusive, and all about affirmation, positive communication, community building and other great RJ-principled stuff! For the US - go to www.avpusa.org and for others, http://avpinternational.org. If you need help or want to discuss further, please feel free to contact me directly: phyllislaw@comcast.net

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