A Philadelphia School's Big Bet on Nonviolence

Later that night 12 of the windows got shot out by drug crews.

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,

Assaults on students by other students and on teachers and administrators have persisted despite these measures. It raises the question of whether the marginal benefits of the district's security apparatus are worth the psychological impact of creating an environment for children that so closely resembles a correctional facility. The kids at John Paul Jones, who nicknamed their own school the "Jones Jail," were clearly aware that it was the school-to-prison pipeline entrance.

Shaun Harper is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education where he heads the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. His forthcoming book Exceeding Expectations explores the subject of black and Latino male academic achievement, which he feels is shaped by environmental factors like the physical condition and culture at a particular school.

"Environment matters," says Harper, who interviewed hundreds of low-income New York City public school students for his research on the subject. "If a school promotes academic rigor and going to college, that shapes student behavior. If a school's environment feels unsafe and looks like a prison, then that does, also." None of the kids Harper has ever interviewed who went from a high-security school to a low-security school ever said they felt unsafe without all the bars and metal detectors. Like many educators, he's dubious about the protection these measures actually provide. He cites the story of a hard-working, college-bound student in New York City who accidentally brought to school a box cutter he used on a summer job and forgot to remove from his backpack. For months this student unwittingly carried the box cutter in and out of the school undetected before a security officer finally discovered it. Once the box cutter was discovered, the student was suspended. Did this make the school any safer?

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.*

Professor Shaun Harper believes even kids who have grown up in violent environments can adapt to a school environment that is more gentle and humane. He explains that in better-performing public schools in New York City, academic achievement can be established as the community norm through small acts like announcing each student's college acceptance over the PA system. "You do this for the 9th graders," Harper explains, "not for the seniors who are getting admitted to college. When I interview 9th graders at better-performing low-income schools about why they want to go to college, they say because that's the expectation the school has for them."

Memphis Street Academy says their own internal student polling reflects Mr Harper's research findings. Allowed to respond anonymously to questionnaires, 73% of students said they now felt safe at school, 100% said they feel there's an adult at school who cares about them and 95% said they hope to graduate from college one day. These are the same Jones Jail kids who 12 months ago were climbing over cars to get away from school (Memphis Street Academy has since staggered dismissals and is using AVP techniques on the grounds as kids leave--nearby bodegas have stopped locking their doors when school lets out).

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."

*This section has been edited for clarity.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker and writer based in Philadelphia. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, and he is columnist at The Fix

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