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FEATURED ARTICLE

How Peacemaking Changed a School District

By CAROLYN SCHODT AND STACEY CRUISE

For decades, neighbors called John Paul Jones Middle School “Jones’ Jail.” Repeatedly disruptive student behavior made learning an everyday struggle for teachers and students. Abysmal reading scores were accompanied by rampant incidents involving weapons, serious physical assaults, drugs, and rape among the student body. At dismissal, police cars lined the campus perimeter to protect the neighborhood from an unruly rush of 800 students fleeing from the school. Students, forced to navigate the turbulent Kensington neighborhood, infamous for networks of drug corners plagued with prostitution and gun-fire, were unable to escape a violent environment. The school was failing its students.

In 2012, the School District of Philadelphia identified John Paul Jones Middle School as a Renaissance School, an initiative launched by the School District of Philadelphia in an effort to bring transformative changes to the District’s lowest performing schools and enable dramatic improvement in student achievement. Three major components define Philadelphia School District’s Renaissance Initiative: identifying chronically low-performing schools that are not likely to achieve dramatic improvements without transformative change, identifying individuals and organizations that are capable of turning around failing schools in Philadelphia, and empowering school communities to play an active role in supporting the turnaround of their school.

American Paradigm Schools, a national non-profit educational management organization with a goal of developing a positive blueprint for neighborhoods where excellent educational choices are absent, applied to the school district to turn around John Paul Jones Middle School. The school’s community unanimously voted for American Paradigm Schools to carry out the turnaround. The name was immediately changed to Memphis Street Academy Charter School and brand new faculty and school leaders were hired.

In the summer of 2012, a whirlwind of change took place. The bars covering the middle school’s windows were removed, the metal detectors were put in storage and the school building was refurbished. The former armed guards were not asked to return. Stacey Cruise, chief executive officer of American Paradigm Schools, recalls, “I knew something more was needed to meet the distinct challenge of turning around this school and it wasn’t weapons.” Cruise acted quickly to team up with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), an organization that designs and hosts experiential workshops aimed at promoting peaceful conflict resolution. The AVP model was originally used in prison facilities, but American Paradigm took a leap of faith that the workshops, when applied to the school setting, could create a more caring environment where conflict could be resolved peacefully.    

School’s Overhaul Creates a Sharp Decline in Violence
According to the School District of Philadelphia, serious incidents of violence went from 148 reported incidents during the previous year at John Paul Jones Middle School, to just 17 in Memphis Street Academy’s first academic year. Serious incidents consist of weapons, physical assaults including student-on-teacher and student-on-student incidents, possession and sales of drugs, and rape. It does not take a statistical analysis to grasp the meaningfulness of the data.  Incidences of violence and serious offenses were drastically reduced and an environment where learning could flourish was created. Students were welcomed back to school in a brand new environment, one that emphasizes and supports student empowerment, relationship building and anger management through engagement, rather than institutional control and surveillance.

Faculty Sees the Value in Fostering Change for their Students
On the morning of September 5, 2012, 23 AVP facilitators arrived at Memphis Street Academy. After an initial welcome, the faculty and staff were randomly divided into groups of 15 and dispatched to the six available rooms. No one knew exactly what to expect, but quickly realized this was not a typical in-service day.

The primary goal of the intervention was to create a community.  The working hypothesis was that adults who model community, self-respect, positive regard for others, and a commitment to finding nonviolent solutions to conflicts can create an environment for learning and growth. The support staff, professional staff and administrators participated in the workshop united by a common goal: to create an environment where students could feel supported, inspired, and cared for.

A Peace-Making Model Designed for Prisons Proves Successful in Schools
The 23 AVP facilitators were volunteers drawn from throughout the Atlantic coast. They were experts in creating communities of non-violence in federal and state prisons and recovery programs, and had worked side-by-side with individuals in such facilities. The workshops demonstrated effectiveness in reducing violence in prisons, reducing recidivism among people returning to prison, and creating communities.  AVP’s work at Memphis Street Academy was the first time the workshops were applied to a school’s whole staff, from the front door greeter to the top administrative leadership. The facilitators offered the same workshop developed for prisons, which emphasize the transformation of relationships with self, peers and authority figures. AVP is seriously focused on the development of self-respect coupled with a positive regard for others.  In such an interaction, nonviolent possibilities for handling conflicts can be co-created by the disputants. Participants can learn to speak powerfully and responsibly.

The AVP Basic Workshop is a series of exercises and improvisationalrole plays.  Some of the activities are playful, energetic and fun, and serve the important value of getting acquainted, connecting to one’s physical experience, and increasing one’s awareness of nonverbal communication.  The more complicated exercises are followed by personal reflection and observation of group dynamics.  This reflection period can be brief or lengthy, depending on the interest of the group.  Sometimes, there is simply a question left unanswered but lingering:  What are you feeling right now?  What happened?  What does this have to do with creating or transforming conflict?

Participants develop the skills of listening, observation, communication, cooperation with co-workers, community building, trust, and transformation of relationships amidst conflict. By transforming relationships positively, one changes the possible outcomes when conflicts arise. Particularly important in a school setting is the development of peer relationships across the various levels of an otherwise hierarchical community. 

At the end of the Basic Workshop, Memphis Street Academy participants left with a close connection to their workshop companions and a growing sense of community.  Teachers used the workshop’s lessons to create community in their classrooms, by utilizing the practices of community agreements, sharpening listening and observation skills, and hosting activities that foster trust building, expressing feelings, and making decisions together. The connections the staff made with one another during the workshops created a solid foundation upon which the students could grow. By working together, caring for one another, and demonstrating respect for each other, the faculty and staff at Memphis Street Academy created an environment dedicated to learning and cohesion.

School Staff Goes the Extra Mile
To support the introduction of AVP, six advanced-level sessions were held on Saturdays during the school year for interested faculty and administrators.  AVP believes that the quickest way to “kill” innovation is to require it, and therefore employs a “volunteer only” standard. Participating teachers came on their day off after a demanding week and did not receive any off-setting remuneration.  Their attendance demonstrated the perceived value of the offerings.

Integrating AVP into the life of the school would take more time.  At the end of the school year, 15 faculty members elected to take part in the Training for Facilitators Workshop over the summer.  They apprenticed with experienced AVP facilitators to prepare newly hired staff for the next school year.  The school plans to invite parents and family members to introductory sessions to encourage the Memphis Street Academy community to become engaged in a nonviolent learning environment. The most important innovations in the second year include offering AVP workshops to the seventh and eighth grade students and teachers, integrating AVP into the curriculum, and supporting students in taking leadership roles in the school.

A focus on the transformation of adult-to-adult relationships was central:  teacher and support staff, teacher and administration, teacher and teacher, teacher and parents.  APS and AVP mutually believe that a community of adults could create a respectful environment for students, one in which adults model respect of self and others, demonstrate cooperation, and handle conflicts creatively. 

The American Paradigm School Difference: Implementing a Caring School Community
All American Paradigm schools use the Caring School Community model to rebuild and sustain a safe and quality school culture. Other American Paradigm schools have proven that positive student outcomes are possible when a culture of caring is the norm. American Paradigm Schools has won national and local awards for successfully establishing safe and caring school communities that enable students to learn and thrive.  This well-researched program is designed to promote fairness, personal responsibility, kindness, trust and helpfulness throughout the school community and identifies the school as a common ground for all. Additionally, this model enables teachers to truly know each student, his or her family, individual learning style, and understand the unique context that impacts each student’s learning experience. In the beginning, the intention was to build a caring school environment where students would feel safe and connected. Consequently, occurrences of disruptive behavior and violent incidents were dramatically reduced.  

Building a Supportive Environment Puts Students on a Path to Success
As a new Renaissance School, the expectation is for all Memphis Street Academy students to display strong character, to be prepared to continue their education, and to be able to inspire confidence as the next generation of productive citizens in Philadelphia. Memphis Street Academy is on its way to becoming a Caring School Community. American Paradigm Schools’ philosophy and commitment to leadership combined with the innovative use of the Alternatives to Violence Project has proven powerful. Internal polling at Memphis Street Academy reports that 73 percent of students now feel safe at school, 100 percent feel there is an adult at school who cares about them and 95 percent hope to graduate from college one day. American Paradigm Schools provided the crucial foundation for AVP’s school wide intervention approach and turned a once failing, dangerous school into a place where children can succeed academically, build and develop their character, and safely learn the value of personal connections.

 About the Authors
Carolyn Schodt is the Philadelphia Community Coordinator for the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Her work with AVP began inside Pennsylvania prisons and has now expanded to promote non-violent conflict resolution in Philadelphia schools. A former nursing professor, Schodt founded A Quaker Ministry to Persons with HIV/AIDS and Friends Hospice Project.

Stacey Cruise is the Chief Executive Officer of American Paradigm Schools and one of the founders of Memphis Street Academy Charter School, First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School and Tacony Academy Charter School. Prior to working as the Lead Executive for APS, Cruise had a noteworthy career piloting primary education initiatives in Philadelphia, Mount Laurel, and Baltimore.


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