‘Jones Jail’ gives peace a chance

Known for violence and disorder, Philadelphia’s John Paul Jones Middle School was dubbed “Jones Jail,” writes Jeff Deeney in The Atlantic. Last year, when a charter took over the failing school, American Paradigm Schools didn’t beef up security. They removed the metal detectors, stripped metal grating from the windows and replaced security guards with coaches trained in conflict resolution by the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).

The number of serious incidents fell by 90 percent at what’s now called Memphis Street Academy.

AVP, which started in violent prisons and spread to violent schools, “emphasizes student empowerment, relationship building and anger management over institutional control and surveillance,” writes Deeney. “Engagement coaches  . . . provide support, encouragement, and a sense of safety.”

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.

The school’s students walk past prostitutes and drug dealers on their way to and from school. As Jones Jail, “street violence from the surrounding neighborhood occasionally spilled onto school property.” Yet neighbors feared the Jones students.

“Every day ,” says CEO of American Paradigm Schools Stacey Cruise, “they would set up a perimeter of police officers on the blocks around the school, and those police were there to protect neighbors from the children, not to protect the children from the neighborhood.” Before school let out the block would clear, neighbors coming in off their porches and fearfully shutting their doors. Nearby bodegas would temporarily close shop. When the bell rung, 800 rambunctious children would stream out the building’s front doors, climbing over vehicles parked in front of the school in the rush to get away.

School police officers patrolled the building at John Paul Jones, and children were routinely submitted to scans with metal detecting wands. All the windows were covered in metal grating and one room that held computers even had thick iron prison bars on its exterior.

Engagement coaches were recruited from Troops to Teachers. I assume that means they’re male role models in a community where few kids are growing up with responsible fathers.

Dr. Christine Borelli, Memphis Street Academy’s CEO, grew up in the neighborhood, which makes it easier to build relationships with neighbors and parents. “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.”

In anonymous questionnaires, 73 percent of students said they now felt safe at school, 100 percent said they feel there’s an adult at school who cares about them and 95 percent said they hope to graduate from college one day, writes Deeney.  “Nearby bodegas have stopped locking their doors when school lets out.”

About Joanne


  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Great story and I dearly hope the strategy is successful, but I suspend judgment until more data becomes available. I found the comments at the Atlantic site depressing, though. So much naivete.

    • I found quite a few comments that indicated a widening appreciation of the value of choice.

      One of the most effective defenses the district-based system has/had was the simple inability to conceive of any alternatives. There were the district-based schools and if you couldn’t afford a private school, that was that. If there are no alternatives the only reasonable course of action is acceptance which quite often means apathy.

      Charters, more then any other policy, are puncturing that defense.

      People, particularly parents, understand without the need to be told that a charter’s dependent on remaining in the good graces of parents. Anger enough parents and the school will cease to exist.

      Granted, the execrable schools that typify many urban districts provides a comfortable “floor” for charters meaning they don’t actually have to be very good, they just have to be better then the district schools with which they compete. But as charter caps are loosened, or removed entirely, the standard will rise since charters will begin competing with each other.

      Take the school that’s the subject of this article.

      If another charter opens nearby there’ll be a reflexive comparison between that school and Memphis Street Academy. The new charter won’t be able to rely on a comparison with just the lousy Philly district schools. Parents will also measure the new school against Memphis Street Academy. Both schools will be strongly motivated to *not* be seen as second best.

      As opposed to the district schools of course.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    Interesting there is no student demographic info presented regarding the per and post charter conversion. The student data from Greatschools is pre-takeover.

    I bet there was a miraculous change in student population now that the neighborhood kids can br screened and “counseled” out.