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July 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 10

A School for Peace and Justice

A focus on four dimensions of social responsibility transforms a Philadelphia high school and fosters skills and attitudes that promote social justice.

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A visitor walking the halls of Parkway High School for Peace and Social Justice would encounter the usual crowd of students chatting, joking, and working their way to their next class. Classes might appear similar to those in any school to the casual observer who dropped into this public high school in Philadelphia. But this school of approximately 300 students, 57 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, differs in profound ways from other high schools.
In 2005, at the urging of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (a children's advocacy organization) and after much discussion and debate, the school adopted the theme of peace and social justice. The leadership of the Philadelphia school district was pushing the development of small, themed high schools, and Parkway's leaders chose to focus on fostering peaceful, responsible learners. They committed themselves to building a program that would help students learn "how to decrease violence, advance justice, work with people of different backgrounds, and help create a culture of peace," as the school's vision statement pledges.
Since Parkway embraced this theme, test scores have risen, suspensions have decreased, attendance has increased, and the graduation rate has hit 100 percent, with almost all students going on to college. Parent participation is stronger. Teachers are more committed to the school's programs, and students are showing an enthusiasm for learning not always seen in high schools. Adopting this focus has made a difference in students' self-discipline, interpersonal relationships, and willingness to take responsibility for their own learning.

Four Dimensions of Transformation

Teachers and administrators didn't transform the school just by crafting a vision statement. As the school has developed, faculty members have created new courses, projects, and learning activities designed to foster students' social responsibility. These new experiences teach students to care about one another, to critically examine violence and social justice issues, and to foster skills and adopt actions that will help resolve social problems.
This effort changed Parkway along four dimensions that I believe are essential for fostering social responsibility within any school: It enhanced the culture of the school; gave students opportunities to reflect on their own values, beliefs, and behaviors; offered enriched academic learning experiences; and encouraged students to serve others. Let's look at how Parkway has developed each dimension.
Students at Parkway High School for Peace and Social Justice paint a mural illustrating peace and justice themes on a wall of their school.
el200907 seif photo1
Photo courtesy of Elliott Seif

Remaking School Culture

  • Be on time, prepared, and ready to learn.
  • Practice academic honesty.
  • Respect personal space, property, and opinions.
  • Promote a positive educational environment through respectful language and actions.
These decisions led to the adoption of programs that promote the desired atmosphere of social responsibility. For example, every 9th grade student at Parkway takes part in an extensive peer mediation training led by a consultant from<EMPH TYPE="4">Educators for Social Responsibility, a group that helps teachers create safe, caring, respectful, and productive learning environments.
One teacher proudly recounted an incident that showed the effect of this training. When two students began to fight in the hallway, other students—instead of egging them on—separated the two and calmed them down. Students encouraged the fighters to attend a session conducted by a student trained in peer mediation that would focus on their conflict. The boys did so, and they resolved the contentious issue peacefully.

Learning to Reflect and Lead

The purpose of self-reflection at Parkway is to enable students to build personal responsibility through exploring their own values and beliefs. By looking more deeply into their values, ideas, and experiences, students learn to take greater responsibility for others, to explore ways to communicate well, and to solve interpersonal problems. Leadership skills are also a focus; students practice setting personal goals and carrying them through.
All 9th and 10th grade students take a core sequence of social leadership courses, also developed with Educators for Social Responsibility. The 9th grade course focuses on the question, What does it mean to lead for social responsibility? Participants build communication and conflict-resolution skills and develop tolerance for individual differences.
Students explore the definition of leadership. They determine whether they are currently leaders or followers, and why. Students discuss articles on good communication, take part in exercises that help them think about and practice effective ways to communicate, and learn conflict-resolution techniques. Another set of activities requires students to define social justice and examine whether it's possible to have a socially just world.
This course helps students hone such crucial skills as listening actively, managing anger, learning how to disagree with others, and recognizing the difference between dialogue and debate. In a series of lessons, students work in pairs to write a skit about a personal conflict and act it out in front of the class. The teacher assigns two other students to take the role of mediator for each skit, and all four students role-play a mediation session. Afterwards, the whole class reflects on and analyzes the mediation process.
In another set of lessons, students reflect on how movies, advertisements, music, and television perpetuate negative stereotypes. They watch or listen to selections that exemplify stereotypes and analyze how these media are designed to influence viewers' perceptions and ideas.
The 10th grade course builds on the first year's work using a program called<EMPH TYPE="4">Journey of a Champion. This program is designed to help students take greater responsibility for their own actions and become proactive in their school and community. Students reflect on who is a champion (or hero), the challenges champions face, and how individuals can become more heroic. They explore their own lives and values, analyze their communities for negative realities, and think about their roles in the community (as bystanders or as actors in support of change). The teacher also uses readings and discussions about historical events such as the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II to examine how individuals and groups reacted to these events. Students explore champions in history and model ways to emulate them through behavior change and service to others.
Each class also takes on one or more projects for the year, such as learning about and working with elderly people, helping homeless people, or exploring ways to aid people with mental illness. Journal writing and self-reflection are integral parts of these lessons and projects.
Parkway students work with older adults from the Oxford Presbyterian Elderdiner club on physical fitness and nutrition projects.
el200907 seif photo2
Photo courtesy of Elliott Seif
This program makes for dynamic lessons. For example, students use several lessons to create their own classroom code of behavior. Students continually refer to this code in their effort to be upstanding class members. In one class, this seemingly simple task led to passionate debate about what rules should be on the list. Some students argued that a rule might belong in the code of conduct, but they weren't sure they could always follow it. Eventually the class agreed to the following guidelines:
  • Listen to the teacher and to classmates.
  • Talk one at a time.
  • No throwing things in class.
  • Raise your hand.
  • Respect everyone's opinion (nobody's is "wrong").
  • Speak wisely.
  • No cursing.
  • Learn how to take constructive criticism.
  • No eating or drinking in class.
  • Stop jumping to conclusions.
  • No laughing at or teasing others.
  • No smart comments toward people.

Integrating Social Responsibility Themes into Academics

Academic learning can foster social responsibility by giving students a basic understanding of local, national, and worldwide social justice issues and of the underlying conflicts that can lead to violence.
A newly developed required course at Parkway helps all 9th grade students become aware of worldwide problems and develop ways to face them creatively. There is no textbook; teachers provide students with readings and direct students to do research, collaborate in small groups, and contribute to class discussions. In the first unit, students learn problem-solving and research skills. Subsequent units help students examine local problems and also research other countries and study the challenges citizens of those countries face. Students come to understand how globalization has helped many people but also has created numerous problems.
In the unit People Who Make a Difference, students research people who have worked throughout history to resolve conflicts, fight injustice, and make the world a better place. They create posters about such individuals as Clara Barton, Nelson Mandela, or César Chávez, which they share with others throughout the school.
  • What is racism?
  • How long has it been around?
  • How did it develop in the United States?
  • What forces may have led to the growth and institutionalization of racism?
One English teacher at Parkway chooses literature with what he calls "edgy and risky" content—including Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Sula by Toni Morrison—that raises issues of peace and social justice in ambiguous ways, promotes open-ended discussion, and sparks generative writing assignments. As students progress through these novels, the teacher reads to the class from various other sources, introducing themes like racial and cultural identity, assimilation, human sexuality, and conformity. A key goal is to promote passionate dialogue among students as they examine provocative issues through the novels and to help them take greater responsibility for their own discussions.
A science teacher uses the theme "how humans affect the planet." He examines such questions as Which interactions between humans and the environment benefit society? Which cause hardships?
During the 2007–08 school year, Parkway sponsored half-day seminars for the entire school around such topics as the civil rights movement, climate change, and lesbian and gay issues. Speakers came to classrooms to discuss voting rights, the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, and the scourge of land mines as a legacy of war.

Promoting Service

Over their four years, students must donate a minimum of 60 hours of service and leadership to the local community. Many give much more. During the past year, students have worked on election campaigns, contributed to after-school programs, helped rebuild homes in economically depressed communities, volunteered at museums, and supported reading programs at libraries. School leaders encourage students to work with organizations that promote peace and social justice.
  • Better understand peace and social justice issues.
  • See the connection between social justice issues and the world of work.
  • Demonstrate and improve competence in research, reading, writing, and giving presentations.
Topics chosen during the 2008–09 school year included worldwide food shortages, ethnic cleansing in Darfur, and violence in Philadelphia. Every senior project includes service learning as well as a research paper. The culminating activity is a presentation on the student's topic to a panel of teachers and outside community members.
For example, one project focused on the connection between violence and the media. A student researched the prevalence of violence on television and in movies and its effects on young people. She also discovered how the Internet has made it easier to access information that promotes violence, such as how to make a bomb. Working with Mothers in Charge, a Philadelphia-based group aimed at reducing violence, she developed a presentation on her topic suitable for 9th graders.

Making a Difference

Developing powerful social responsibility experiences for students in these four crucial areas has taken continual commitment by school leaders, enthusiasm from teachers, and hard work by volunteers and outside consultants. The results have been very positive. In addition to the changes in school culture and test scores cited earlier, teachers report that students show greater initiative in planning and implementing the school's peace and justice activities. Students are also actively involved in resolving conflicts, show more tolerance toward diversity, demonstrate greater understanding of social justice issues, and more frequently participate in service activities.
Parkway's success illustrates how any school can transform itself into a place that develops socially responsible young adults. Other schools that wish to build socially responsible attitudes and skills in students need to commit to this task by rethinking school culture, designing programs and courses that enable self-reflection, integrating appropriate themes into the curriculum, and promoting service learning. A comprehensive emphasis on developing social responsibility will enable students to make a difference in their schools, families, and communities—and will create students with the skills a conflicted world needs.
End Notes

1 Parkway students' standardized test scores have increased from 40 percent to 45 percent proficient or advanced in mathematics, and from 54 percent to 64 percent proficient or advanced in reading.

Elliott Seif has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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