- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

Some years ago when my nephew was in 11th grade in West Philadelphia, the school system changed the attendance boundaries, requiring him to attend a different high school, one controlled by gangs from a rival neighborhood.

After weeks of unsuccessful appeals to the school board, his mother regretfully gave him permission to quit school. He never graduated. Unfortunately, many parents today face this same dilemma of weighing their children’s safety against the merits of an education and the legal requirement of school attendance.

The reality of this fear of violence and its impact on education is not fully appreciated by those well-intentioned education and public officials who concern themselves with the low performance in our schools today. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars have been expended in the last decade on efforts to reform various public educational systems by reducing class size, increasing teacher training, revising curricula, and mounting educational retreats for principals. This includes $12 million invested by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $9 million by local Baltimore foundations in a massive effort to “reform” Baltimore high schools, and $45 million by the Annenberg Foundation in New York City’s schools.

But these initiatives ignored an obvious reality: Real reform has to take place in the presence of and on a foundation of civil order. Failure to develop a plan to bring peace to our schools is like discussing school reform in the middle of a war zone.

By addressing disorder as a security problem and disassociating it from school reform, we end up with increasingly costly and repressive approaches to handling our children. School systems rely almost exclusively upon cops, curfews and cameras to secure the schools. While these external approaches have their place, they have limited usefulness. Some schools hire psychologists to deal with students committing violence. Young people will not seek out psychologists or police when facing a crisis — such people are not in the same cultural zipcode as our children.

The most effective approaches are internal to the youth culture. They start by identifying those individuals who by virtue of their background can influence the young people creating the problem. The Center for Neighborhood Enterprise has employed this community-based approach in 25 schools in six locations across the country (Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County, Md.), with excellent results. In each locale CNE partners with neighborhood-based organizations that already have the trust of young people, who hire, train and supervise young adults to work in the schools as hall monitors, mentors and conduct character classes for the disruptive students.

Called “youth advisers,” these young adults come from the same background as the students and have overcome many of the same challenges the students face. They operate in different cultural zones than the professional educational establishment. Trusted by students, they offer emotional support. Students see them as older brothers or sisters. Since confiding in them is not considered snitching, information about impending conflict is shared with them so interventions can prevent violence.

The results are conclusive. In Dallas’ James Madison High School, for instance, when youth advisers from CNE’s community partner Vision Regeneration were put into the school as hall monitors and student mentors, gang incidents went from 113 to 0 and code of conduct violations from 171 to 9 in two years. In the second year, reading scores improved from 42 to 64.6 percent; math scores rose from 35.8 percent to 45 percent. At Bladensburg High School in Prince George’s County, where the CNE violence prevention program has been in force since last spring, the youth advisers from D.C.’s East Capitol Center for Change intervened in more than 100 conflicts between the start of the school year in September to January. As a consequence, according to county school system chief executive officer Dr. John Deasy, suspensions were cut from 130 in the same period the previous year to fewer than 50.

Violence against school personnel and other students has reached epidemic proportions in our public schools. Now 81 percent of the nation’s schools experienced one or more violent incidents in 2003-2004, the most recent school year reported by the U.S. Department of Justice. Thirty-six percent of urban school students report gangs in their schools. In 2004-2005, there were 48 school-associated violent deaths of students, staff and nonstudents, more than double the 21 of the previous school year. The 2005 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System reports almost 36 percent of American high school children were involved in fighting in the 30 days previous to its survey. Almost 10 percent of children in Baltimore and almost 9 percent in Washington, D.C., were afraid to go to school And these figures do not take into account those students, like my nephew, who drop out completely.

School reform supporters do not seem to appreciate that fear is the real stumbling block to learning. If the schools are made safe, extraordinary and expensive measures of reform may be unnecessary. Safety may be the only improvement needed to attract and retain good teachers, bring back students who are afraid to go to school and create a climate where education can thrive.

ROBERT L. WOODSON SR.

Founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (formerly known as the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise).

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