School of life: why travel is the best teacher
How special can these Sixers be? A Mitchell Elementary school of life: why travel is the best teacher walks by a bulletin board that promotes the number of days eighth-grade students have gone without getting into fights. 100 each at graduation if they do not resort to physical violence.
Kristen Graham covers the Philadelphia School District. Kristen is a Pulitzer Prize winner, part of a team whose “Assault on Learning” series about violence in the Philadelphia schools won the 2012 prize for public service for the Inquirer. You can also find her on Twitter here. Mikel Lindsay is acutely aware what the world thinks of him — a 14-year-old attending a public school in a particularly tough corner of Philadelphia. Lindsay, an eighth grader at Mitchell Elementary at 55th Street and Kingsessing Avenue.
But that’s not him, Lindsay said. And this year, he’s proving it. As of Friday, the Mitchell eighth-graders’ streak of peaceful days hit 70, no small feat for students surrounded by people responding to problems with fists, and worse. Even in the nation’s poorest big city, the school’s hard-luck Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, Kingsessing, sticks out: 81 percent of Mitchell’s students live below the poverty line. Some are homeless, many are hungry, and some are essentially raising themselves. Kingsessing is also among the city’s most violent corners, police data shows.
And the school has not been spared. By this point in the 2015-16 school year, nearly a quarter of its eighth-graders had been suspended at least once. And on a 1-to-100 school district measure of academics, climate and growth, Mitchell had scored just 3. But on both counts, the school has made significant gains under the watch of Principal Stephanie Andrewlevich. 100 incentive was her idea — a way to promote peace not just for the older students, but for the whole school. Andrewlevich, pausing in the hallway last month to hug a student who rushed at her with a big smile. They have a choice — to become the violence they see in their day-to-day lives, or to be peaceful models for our school and our community.
Research out of Harvard University suggests that financial rewards, when offered by educators, are most effective for things that children can control — such as doing homework or reading books. Well-designed incentives can make a difference in schools, said Brad Allan, a researcher at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard. For one of his lab’s studies, Allan and other researchers examined the use of incentives in 250 schools in five cities, including the effects of incentives on behavior goals. He said he had not heard of schools specifically offering students cash to not fight, but he endorsed the goal. The concept is not a new one for Andrewlevich, now in her third year as principal. She and her team have had success setting a goal around one target behavior with one group of kids as a lever for the whole school. When absenteeism was a problem, they targeted a small group of at-risk students and saw attendance improve.
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They did the same with a focus on reading skills in the early grades. Andrewlevich came up with the no-fighting challenge after the eighth graders’ Outward Bound trip in late September. She recalled watching the class working together, sharing food at lunch, getting along, making sure no one was left out, and generally showing their best selves. The kids she knows are not perfect, but they are funny and smart. They have dreams, and they care about the world, and they are capable of great things. Eighth grade students work on math problems with teacher Laura Steinberg. Eighth-grade students work on math problems with teacher Laura Steinberg.
The 33 young people have been challenged to make it to graduation without fighting. Eighth grade can be a tough time for any young person, with students changing physically, keenly attuned to peer pressure and being cool. And she knew soon the Mitchell eighth graders would be released into the much wider, potentially tougher pool of high school, away from the smaller world of elementary school and the teachers who have come to love and appreciate them over the years. So Andrewlevich issued the group challenge — if anyone slips up, the whole class loses out on the cash.
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The principal would love to find a bank partner, perhaps, and use the reward as a way to teach students financial literacy. Conflict, Andrewlevich told her students, is natural. But you can handle it without getting physical. But as the weeks went on, the eighth-graders internalized the message. No one has forgotten it, but staff rarely hear the students mention the cash these days.
There are daily reminders: It’s day 50! There’s a buzz in the building, a movement. Violence is down, school-wide, but the eighth graders especially have shown remarkable progress. In Andrewlevich’s first year at the school, students ended up at the police station for mediation multiple times, she said.
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So far this year, only 8 percent of the eighth-graders have been suspended. That’s down from 17 percent at the same point last year and 21 percent in 2016. But now, I don’t use my hands. And it’s better this way — our teachers can teach more. Her mom, Pattie Barnes, said the challenge has meant a world of difference for Zakiya.
I used to hear about her fighting all the time. Barnes said offering the incentive is a good idea, a display of how committed the school is to its students. 100 if they make it to graduation with no fighting. We’re just stopping all the drama.
The money would be nice, she said — Smith thinks she’d give it to her mom to buy school supplies for next year — but it’s not about that anymore, she said. I believe in my classmates — this is making us better. Make no mistake: Fighting and suspensions are down building-wide to its lowest level since Andrewlevich came to the school, but Mitchell isn’t peaceful at all times. Though the eighth graders have had no fights since the initiative started in late September, students in other grades have thrown punches. And the challenges of the neighborhood are very real. The students were playing outside at recess in late January when a shooting occurred across the street.
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Mitchell was on lockdown for two hours. Some students were visibly shaken, others angry, and others acted as if it were no big deal, the principal said. It’s not OK for the kids to get comfortable with this. Stephanie Andrewlevich, Mitchell Elementary’s principal, came up with the idea to pay eighth graders from refraining from fighting. So the school is doing its best to turn that moment into something bigger.
It’s planning a rally for peace and other activities, using the eighth graders’ peaceful streak as a jumping-off point to show what is possible. And yes, Andrewlevich knows some might see her offer as something dark, as bribery. I see it as an investment in our kids. Slim pickings this year for the Eagles? These two women want to rescue Pa.
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