- Associated Press - Saturday, March 14, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Rain pelted the ice and slush piled outside Wayne School.

Divone Jones, 20, stood smiling in his bright blue vest and dripping stocking cap, undeterred.

He greeted the throngs of students who streamed out of the building at the end of the school day.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

Some stopped to talk, despite the weather. One girl let him know she got in some trouble for a fight. “Now why did you do that?” he asked.

Jones is one of the youngest members of Erie’s Blue Coats, peacekeepers who are most visible when they stand sentry in Erie’s schoolyards.

He works for the Blue Coats because of what they did for him. If not for the Blue Coats, Jones said, he would be on the streets.

“I was fighting. I was getting into trouble,” Jones, a Strong Vincent High School graduate, said. “I would not listen.”

The Blue Coats working at his school - Daryl “Brother D” Craig, Andre Horton and Curtis Jones - changed him.

“They were good to me. They helped me get through,” he said. “They always told me, ‘You have a good heart. You have a good soul.’”

Now Jones does the same for others, even when he is not on duty.

The Blue Coats grew out of an anti-violence initiative launched a decade ago by Craig, a former Buffalo gang member, and Erie County Councilman Horton, with the support and spiritual guidance of the late Pastor Robert L. Gaines Jr. of Abundant Life Ministries on Parade Street.

The group started with a handful of volunteers in blue coats keeping the peace in Erie schoolyards amid the emergence of youth violence six years ago. It is now poised, with the help of a $300,000 Erie Community Foundation grant, to become a key fixture in community efforts to shepherd Erie children who face sometimes lethal obstacles - poverty and violence - through the most elemental of childhood experiences: school.

A woman who took Craig in and off the streets when he was a homeless teen told him the whole world was responsible for children.

“I believe that,” Craig, 58, said. “We either pick them up or let them down. Either way, we are responsible. They operate in a world we create.

“The mission of the Blue Coats is to create heaven wherever we go - to create a positive world for the children. You do that by telling them how great they are and how great they can become.”

The three-year funding package was awarded by the Erie Community Foundation in October based on a grant application submitted by the Partnership for Erie’s Public Schools on behalf of the Erie School District.

The application frankly framed the challenge: The district must educate its children and has resources to do so, the application stated. But it must also acknowledge another truth - that 85 percent of its 12,000 students are economically disadvantaged. The district has a duty, it said, not only to educate but to “mitigate the extreme socio-economic conditions that stem from the poverty in which many of them live.”

“We must be honest about the level of instability in the lives of our students and understand that poverty has a significant impact on their ability to learn and thrive,” the application stated.

The application said racial and cultural differences create barriers between district staff and the children and their families that can prevent students from fully accessing the community resources they need to succeed.

The Blue Coats, men and women with deep ties to the neighborhoods and families from which the children come, have helped the district bridge that barrier, it said.

“The district is committed to providing safe and supportive schools where students can succeed and thrive, but we also recognize that the ‘walls’ of our schools are permeable,” Erie School District spokesman Matthew Cummings said. “Our students and staff are impacted significantly by the poverty, crime, violence, social disorganization and other issues that exist in many of the neighborhoods we serve.”

“The Blue Coats help our staff understand what students and families are dealing with at home or in their neighborhoods, how to communicate more effectively with families and how to better challenge and motivate students.”

The district credits the Blue Coats’ presence with a sharp decline in violence in and around the schools.

“The Blue Coats have helped to increase school safety at the nine buildings by reducing behavior infractions and incidents,” Cummings said. In the past three years, violent incidents dropped by 57.9 percent at East High School, Cummings said.

“At Strong Vincent, the decrease is 65.9 percent over that same time period,” he said.

Jhani Curlett, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Wayne who stopped to talk with Divone Jones on a recent day, has heard their message loud and clear.

The Blue Coats’ lesson? “We don’t have the right to put our hands on each other,” she said.

In the first phase of the grant funding, which is now underway, Blue Coat coverage will be expanded at nine district buildings: Wayne, Pfeiffer-Burleigh School, Emerson-Gridley Elementary School, McKinley Elementary School, Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Roosevelt Middle School, East, Strong Vincent High School, and Central Career and Technical High School.

Blue Coats, who receive a stipend based on the hours they work, will undergo training and be stationed at the schools at all key points in the academic day and at after-school activities to help squelch conflicts and promote safety.

The second funding phase aims to equip the Blue Coats and their sponsor organization, Creative Community Connectors Inc., a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organization, with the training, technology and data needed to become self-sustaining.

In phase three, the Blue Coats will be used as part of an intervention program aimed at sixth-graders who are at high risk of dropping out. The goal is to raise Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores and graduation rates for sixth-graders at Woodrow Wilson, Pfeiffer-Burleigh and Wayne schools.

Blue Coats will meet one-on-one with students and families to help them connect with resources that could improve their chances at success, according to the grant application.

The work supported by the grant is just one piece of the overall work done by the Blue Coats, which are organized and managed by Creative Community Connectors, a nonprofit organization directed by Craig and Horton. The group, formerly housed at the Parade Street Community Center, is looking for a new centrally located office and for opportunities to act beyond the schoolyard, such as at local YMCAs. It is working with UPMC Hamot to bring to Erie a program that educates young people about the impact of violence. It is also viewed as a key element of Unified Erie, an anti-crime initiative that has been working for three years to coordinate activities among law enforcement and social-service agencies.

Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri, a Unified Erie leader, said the Blue Coats have reduced violence by mentoring students and resolving conflicts before they erupt.

“They know who these kids are,” he said.

“The Blue Coats have become much more than a community-based violence prevention initiative. These men and women have become integral parts of our schools’ support system for students and families,” Cummings said.

“The relationships are just growing,” Craig said. “It is a very exciting time. There is a lot of potential in Erie. The community has all the elements to be a model for other communities. Right now, I have a lot of hope.”





Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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