“Now we see that as religious leaders we have similar values. We are all human beings. The fact that we practice separate faiths and wear different types of religious garments need not separate us.”
"Working With, Not For, the Holyoke Community"
Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School Stakeholder's Meeting - 2/23/2013
by Kelly Donovan, Karuna Center Program Intern
“Working with, not for, the Holyoke community” was the takeaway theme from the stakeholder’s meeting held on Saturday, February 23rd for students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other community representatives interested in helping guide and oversee the opening of the new Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School (PFSJCS), scheduled to begin its first year in Holyoke, Massachusetts this fall.
The PFSJCS aims to create an educational environment that fosters success in all students and models constructive approaches to conflict. Many high school students in Holyoke are facing real-life challenges such as poverty, teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, and violent conflict outside of school. When student behavioral challenges escalate, typical school responses often include detentions, suspensions, and expulsions. These methods of handling conflict increase student absence from school and make school, for many, a place that harbors feelings of resentment, vulnerability, and defensiveness. In fact, the city of Holyoke has a school dropout rate of 49%, which is even higher among Latina/o youth who also face racial discrimination. The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding has been invited to lend its extensive experience in conflict transformation to help the PFSJCS create a more supportive and proactive community of learning. We anticipate that a school climate in which conflicts are resolved more constructively will help facilitate trusting relationships, which are the bedrock of healthy communities.
February 23rd’s stakeholder meeting served as an important first step in directly involving students, staff, teachers, administrators, and other community members in this project. The day was designed and run jointly by Karuna and PFSJCS staff and began with Ljuba Marsh, principal of the PFSJCS, giving an opening introduction to the 20+ people in attendance. Ljuba emphasized the importance of revitalizing Holyoke students’ joy and excitement for learning, building a peaceful and safe school environment that can get students to their highest level of achievement, and promoting a sense of community-wide agency that empowers not just students but also teachers, and administrators, and local residents to be positive and productive school members.
Following the introduction came a series of large and small-group activities intended to help participants examine the idea of conflict both as it relates to Holyoke schools and how it can be re-imagined as an opportunity for positive change and transformation. One particularly effective activity was a gallery walk in which attendees circled the room, reflecting on various inspirational quotes and images from previous Karuna trainings and workshops. The responses were quite powerful—they ranged from simple phrases like “children learn what they live” and “let’s rebuild Holyoke, the kids need us” to quite profound statements like “let’s nourish who we are together by seeing who we are alone” and “empowering people to embrace peace and social justice as they emerge into themselves is better than restoratively healing after conflict has occurred.” Another effective activity was led by Ken Williams, an associate professor for Intercultural Service, Leadership and Management at the School for International Training (SIT) in Vermont (USA) with extensive experience in innercity education in the U.S. and Caribbean. Following small group discussions in which participants spoke about the various obstacles that have prevented Holyoke children from getting a good education and the various role stakeholders can play in creating the kind of education that would most benefit Holyoke students, Ken led what is called a “harvesting session.” In this harvesting session he condensed and divided what was said in the small groups into main themes and categories, helping participants envision a more concrete action plan for achieving the PFSJCS's short and long-term goals.
A strong feeling of energy and eagerness permeated the day. Every participant was highly engaged and genuinely committed to each other and the PFSJCS. Emotions ran high as those in attendance spoke passionately about the many wrongs they feel have been done to the children of Holyoke via the current school system and their fierce desire to see these wrongs be corrected. A feeling of familial warmth also permeated the day: participants quickly and easily bonded as they affirmed each other’s shared longing for change and said goodbye via hugs and group embraces. Participants left the meeting feeling inspired to work further with PFSJCS and Karuna staff on guiding and overseeing the opening of the new charter school.
The next step in our development plan is a needs and envisioning stage. Focus groups, questionnaires, and surveys will be used to collect data relating to the goals and needs of local residents in order to shape the PFSJCS in such a way as to best serve the interests of the Holyoke community.
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