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.”