About 2 years ago, Karuna Center began working with Principals Ljuba Marsh and Bob Brick of the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to help build a safer, more supportive school environment for students. In Holyoke, as in many other urban centers in the U.S., youth face challenges fueled by income inequality and racism, including violence, homelessness, teen pregnancy, gang recruitment, and drug use. Many of Marsh and Brick’s students come from disadvantaged and special needs backgrounds, and arrived at PFSJCS following instances of bullying, racial discrimination, physical assault, and sexual harassment in the public school system. Conflict and instability at home placed an additional burden on already struggling students, many of whom were on the verge of dropping out of school altogether. Founded on the teachings of social justice advocate Paulo Freire, and seeking to respect the cultural heritage of Holyoke’s Latino communities, PFSJCS offered these youth a second chance.
Early on, Karuna Center met with students, families, and staff outside of class to learn about the challenges students faced at home and in the community. Together, we conceived of the Every Voice Project – an effort to build the school’s capacity to proactively address cycles of conflict common to inner-city schools by empowering students to advocate for themselves and their education. Through trainings in leadership, dialogue, and violence prevention, Karuna Center is helping the student body to build inner self-worth, take responsibility for their education, and work with teachers and staff to address conflict before it spirals out of control. Dr. Ken Williams, an expert in multicultural education and Karuna Center Peacebuilding Associate, has taken a lead role in designing a program that meets the needs of the diverse student body.
In addition to trainings and workshops, Karuna Center is also working with students, teachers, parents, and staff at monthly Safe School Committee Meetings to integrate a culture of positive conflict resolution into every aspect of school activities. By adopting non-punitive solutions to shared challenges, our efforts with the school are promoting communication between students and staff, supporting continuous cycles of learning and growth, and fostering a sense of community. As the school welcomes its second crop of students, teacher Jacqueline Burress had this to share:
“You can feel the energy in the air – there is a sense of legacy among the students about how things are handled here. The kids look forward to coming here. It’s so different from the environment in other schools, and I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.”