The school says it wasn't just the humanizing physical makeover of the facility that helped. Memphis Street Academy also credits the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a noncoercive, nonviolent conflict resolution regimen originally used in prison settings that was later adapted to violent schools. AVP, when tailored to school settings, emphasizes student empowerment, relationship building and anger management over institutional control and surveillance. There are no aggressive security guards in schools using the AVP model; instead they have engagement coaches, who provide support, encouragement, and a sense of safety.
The size and immediacy of the drop will strike some as suspect, but Memphis Street Academy stands by accuracy of their numbers, saying that they are required by law to report the same types of incidents any other school must report. Nothing about the reporting process or the kinds of incidents that must be reported was changed. And while many charter schools are criticized for "creaming," i.e. taking only the best students and transferring those with behavior problems or disabilities to other struggling public schools, the Memphis Street Academy and the Alternatives to Violence Project insist that wasn't the case, here. The conditions of their charter required them to pick up exactly where John Paul Jones left off.
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.
...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.
...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.
...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."
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