July 19, 2013

Another Good Story from High School

By Cynthia Alkon

I hope the fact that I have now seen a second story about high schools using mediation and reducing violence and suspensions means that there is a serious trend in the United States and that we are changing how we treat high school students, particularly in poorer neighborhoods.

This story from the Atlantic describes changes in a high school in Philadelphia.  This school changed how it dealt with both conflict within the school and danger from a high crime neighborhood—all with what seem impressive results in a very short period of time.  The school changed the physical realities—removing bars, metal detectors and other things that made it seem more like a jail, and less like a school.  The school also changed how it treated the students, by raising expectations, using mediation to resolve conflict, and taking police officers out of the school.

As a Shaun Harper, a professor of education, said in the story, “Environment matters…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.”

It is a shame that it seems a controversial or highly innovative move for a school to decide to stop treating students with heavy-handed tactics and instead focus on treating them with respect and raising expectations.

The beginning of the article:

“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%.” 

 continue reading

 

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Comments

  • Adam Allen says:

    I think taking away that “prison mentality” and showing these students the right way to act and respect each other is a step in the right direction. Plain clothes officers, disguised as school workers, may be a good option in case things get out of hand. Great article though.

  • Lawyer Jim says:

    “Environment matters.” The crux revealed in two words.

  • Like the comment below states, I agree that environment matters. I think it is really incredible that Paradigm Schools sees the value in giving students a sense of individual responsibility. It has continually proven helpful to give kids in these types of hostile and violent environments a sense of ownership over their choices and behavior, leading to changes in the trajectory of their lives. What better way to teach kids in this type of environment that, if they can own their actions and take responsibility in solving their own conflicts, they will be trusted and allowed more freedom? After all, if a child is subjected to a prison-like environment daily simply because of where they live, there is not much to dread about a possible future in a real prison. Teaching students the self-representation skills that conflict-solving mediation will require will place new life skills in their repertoire and perhaps give them a new perspective on how to live their lives above this bad behavior constantly exemplified. Awesome concept, I hope programs like this keep it up!

  • Netanya Mintz says:

    Yes, environment definitely matters. While I generally consider myself an idealist, when I read this article, I couldn’t help but be skeptical of the potential weight this one successful program in this one particular school could carry. In theory, I agree that if you give a child trust, he will instinctively try to live up to that. Children (ok, and adults) seek attention, and it’s obviously better to satisfy that desire through positive reinforcement than negative. For that reason, I’m glad this Philadelphia school was able to be successful. That being said, I think every high school and high schooler have varied and distinct needs that cannot be addressed through one generalized, idealized program. In fact, while I read this article, I wanted to read an article alongside it that discussed the success of the opposite kind of high school program: the one with the beefed up security guards and metal detectors. How many schools have seen a reduction in crime after implementing such a program? There must be at least one.

    There is no one answer. Any program designed to reduce or eliminate crime and create a safer school atmosphere will likely have to combine the stricter standards with some idealistic approaches. Making sure the children feel they are trustworthy without totally sacrificing the school’s practical safety is ideal. How it can be done in every high school across the country is not a project I can even imagine beginning. At least we have hopeful stories like the one this article portrayed as some starting point. :)

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