Installing more security measures such as metal detectors and bars on windows wasn’t doing anything to make Philadelphia’s John Paul Jones Middle School any safer. So when the perpetually underperforming school was taken over by American Paradigm Schools, its new administrators tried a radical experiment – they removed all of them. According to Jeff Deeney writing for The Atlantic, the experiment worked – the violence in the school fell by over 90%.
Prior to that decision, the school building’s appearance, both inside and out, earned it the nickname of “Jones Jail” by its students and community residents. However, according to school leaders, it wasn’t simply the physical transformation that did the trick. It was also the adoption of the Alternatives to Violence Project, a program that focused on teaching kids alternative non-violent approaches to conflict resolution.
AVP has an interesting pedigree. Prior to being used to reduce instances of physical violence in the country’s most troubled schools, it was widely deployed in America’s prison system.
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.
It seems unlikely that a program that helps hardened criminals work out their problems without violence would also work on fifth-graders, but the conditions confronting most students in what is now called the Memphis Street Academy are strikingly similar: poverty, rampant drug use in the community, and absent or struggling parents. Students witness street crimes from drug dealing to prostitution on their way to and from class, and witnessing violence isn’t unusual.
Precautions taken by law enforcement and community residents to protect the neighborhood from the John Paul Jones students would seem preposterous if they weren’t also necessary. Police would cordon off a number of square blocks around the building before last bell and stores and other businesses would temporarily close. Fixing the environment around the troubled school was a priority, and a grateful community is pleased with the results.
Memphis Street Academy says their own internal student polling reflects Mr Harper’s research findings. Allowed to respond anonymously to questionnaires, 73% of students said they now felt safe at school, 100% said they feel there’s an adult at school who cares about them and 95% said they hope to graduate from college one day. These are the same Jones Jail kids who 12 months ago were climbing over cars to get away from school (Memphis Street Academy has since staggered dismissals and is using AVP techniques on the grounds as kids leave–nearby bodegas have stopped locking their doors when school lets out).
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.”