Concerned about violence and other problems in their schools, students across Philadelphia are taking matters into their own hands.
From fourth graders at Lingelbach Elementary to high school seniors at Bartram and Kensington, students have been taking steps to improve their schools' climates and reduce the tension that leads to aggressive behavior - before it becomes a problem.
"The School District policies have always focused on punishment, not prevention," says Eric Braxton, director of the Philadelphia Student Union. The Student Union is an organization devoted to developing a diverse group of student leaders who work to improve their schools.
Braxton calls for more emphasis on basics that are known to reduce discipline problems: good instruction, good relationships between students and staff, and adequate counseling services.
The students need someone at the school who knows them, whom they trust, and who checks in on them regularly, he says. Students agree, saying that many feel they have no one to talk to.
Building student-teacher relationships
Bartram High School, the largest high school in the District and one that has an active Student Union chapter, has a student-to-counselor ratio of 900 to one. The overall ratio in the District is 500 to one.
"We have more cops than counselors," Bartram senior Geraldine Mensah points out.
To reduce tension between students and staff - a problem that peaked after the accidental shooting of an assistant principal three years ago - the Student Union chapter at Bartram has initiated several projects aimed at building trust and improving relationships.
The students first took a survey of staff and student perspectives on the tense situation at the school. They found that many of Bartram's problems resulted from lack of resources (including staffing shortages), negative attitudes on the part of students and teachers, and a general lack of trust and respect.
To address these problems, they formed the Staff and Students Together Committee in spring 2001, which initiated a student/staff basketball tournament held each spring at the school. The tournament is very popular and has been highly successful in bringing students and teachers together in a positive, casual way.
As Geraldine Mensah says, "You have to have a good relationship between students and staff before any school can work."
In addition to the tournament and committee, the Bartram students are currently working on a plan to bring in an ombudsman for the school. The person would be neither a student nor a staff member, would be trained in mediation, and would be available to hold meetings between students and staff members when conflicts arise.
Although the position of ombudsman is mentioned in the student handbook, the policy has never been implemented.
Advocating for new discipline policies
Kensington High School students are similarly concerned about their school's climate. The school has had six principals in less than three years and, according to many students, discipline has been very inconsistent and ineffective.
In interviews, students repeatedly raise concerns about fairness and respect, and identify students who "don't want to learn" as a major source of problems, though they say such students are a minority.
Students also cite poor conditions, including filthy bathrooms, graffiti, drab hallways and broken lockers, as sources of low morale. They suggest that more after-school activities, assemblies, sports, and music and art programs might create a greater sense of community at their school.
In the eyes of all students interviewed, the District's new zero-tolerance policy has had no noticeable effect.
To address some of the issues of school climate, the Kensington chapter of Youth United for Change (YUC), a group that organizes students to advocate for educational improvements, has researched approaches to discipline in other cities.
YUC identified a successful initiative in Milwaukee that reduced discipline problems by addressing school climate, relationships, instructional quality, and shared responsibility.
Kristina Howell, a senior at Kensington and member of YUC, presented information about the Milwaukee project to the Kensington Action Team, a group of staff members, students and administrators that was convened last month to address discipline issues at the school.
Howell emphasizes the importance of mutual respect between students and teachers. "How do you expect us to respect you if you don't respect us?" she asks. Teachers at Kensington express parallel concerns about student attitudes.
Specifically, YUC recommended reducing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, limiting the power of suspension to the principal (to increase consistency), and providing intensive professional development to teachers who need help with classroom management.
Principal Joyce Hoag has been very supportive and has created a professional development plan based on the proposal, says YUC Assistant Director Andi Perez.
A new recess plan
With the help of Need in Deed, a Germantown-based nonprofit that promotes collaborative problem-solving in schools, elementary and middle-school students are also tackling the root causes of discipline problems among their peers.
Need in Deed works with students and teachers to help students identify their own gifts and talents, and to figure out how those strengths can be used to address issues in the students' surroundings that concern them.
An important element of each project is partnership with community organizations that can support students in achieving their goals.
Last year, with the help of Need in Deed, fourth graders at Lingelbach Elementary School identified aggressiveness on the playground as a primary concern. Through a partnership with Phillies Phundamentals, a project of the Phillies organization and the Department of Recreation, they learned about teamwork and reflected on ways in which positive interactions can be fostered.
Next, the students did field observations of student behavior on the playground. They took notes on which areas were sites of the most problems, what kinds of violence were happening during which games, and which parts of the playground could be used better to reduce conflict. They analyzed their data using charts and graphic organizers.
Finally, the students came up with a plan for reducing aggressive behavior through a program they call "socialized recess," which divides the playground into color-coded areas and allows each student to choose an area and an activity for each recess period. Choices include basketball, jump-rope and quiet spaces for reading and writing.
The students presented their recommendations to the school staff. Their plan included an offer to act as monitors to intercede in disputes, try to reduce tensions, and report problems to adults when necessary.
Teachers challenged the students with real concerns about how the plan would be implemented, and the students were able to address and incorporate the teachers' feedback.
The program continues this fall and has been highly successful, according to Small Learning Community coordinator Mary Kwartnik, who worked on the project. The element of choice is important to that success. She says that she sees "very few confrontations or problems because they're doing what they want to do."
Need in Deed has helped Philadelphia youth address the root causes of other problems that affect them and their peers. For example, eighth graders at Grover Washington Middle School studied prejudice and produced a video for teachers at their school to help them initiate discussions about racism with their students.
Violence, aggression and disrespectful behavior are real problems in the Philadelphia schools, and they concern students as much as, or perhaps even more than adults. Across age groups, neighborhoods, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, students have shown that they have both the desire and the ability to develop collaborative and innovative solutions to the troubles they face.
With the respect and support of adults, they can lead the way.