Lowell Peace Makers

I first stepped through the 110-year-old front doors of Humboldt Park’s James Russell Lowell Elementary in September of 2005 as a new volunteer with the Northwestern University Settlement House’s AmeriCorps Project YES! program.

The Lowell administration had announced a number of ambitious new projects in confronting their second year of probation under the No Child Left Behind Act. As a penalty for low test scores, funding for several classroom aides was cut and another year without improvement would potentially put Lowell under the city’s Renaissance 2010 plan. Renaissance 2010 is Chicago’s program to close low-testing public schools run by the Board of Education and staffed with union teachers and re-open them as charter or contract schools managed and staffed by private organizations.

Lowell Elementary joined Children Home and Aid’s Community School Initiative, a three-year program to involve local non-profits and parents within the school walls. This brought community school manager Meta Dunn to Lowell Elementary. According to Dunn, her role is essentially to “bring in outside organizations to help kids feel safe in their classroom and community,” and to help kids with various problems academic and otherwise. In the last year and a half, Community School has been involved in coordinating efforts between such progressive, grassroots organizations as CASA Start, ASPIRA, the street interventionist BUILD and Boston’s Peace Games, which is where myself and four other Project YES! members came in. In Fall 2005, Lowell Elementary began its Peace Games curriculum in an unprecedented number of classrooms; every room from Kindergarten through sixth grade would dedicate forty-five minutes a week to the program.

Peace Games was developed by students and staff at Harvard University in 1992 before becoming a Boston non-profit in 1996. It strives to change the perception of youth dealing with violent situations from being victims, witnesses or perpetrators to being peacemakers, by stressing community service and conflict resolution. For the first half of the year volunteers step into the classroom and teach from a curriculum developed by the national office. In the second half they focus on community service learning through developing individual classroom projects to serve the school and larger community.

Natalie O’Malley, a fourth-grade teacher at Lowell, notes that it’s hard to see her students making the connection from lesson to life. “It’s a slow process,” Dunn said. “The students have picked up the language, they say ‘You’re not being a peacemaker,’ at least when I’m around.” As a volunteer I found that much of the staff was initially skeptical of the program. Early teacher evaluations noted that it seemed like ‘some hippy stuff’ and sometimes the students seemed surprised that the answer to a question about perception or conflict resolution was not, actually, ‘No fighting.’ In the second half of the year, though, there seemed to be a shift.

The conventional model for Peace Games is for a couple of motivated teachers at a school to become involved and find outside volunteers (ideally community members, but frequently college students) to come in once a week and teach for about 45 minutes. Instead of relying on part-time volunteers, Lowell used its team of five full-time AmeriCorps staff as Peace Games teachers. The classroom curriculum was adapted to Humboldt Park and some lessons were cut short or extended as needed.

There is still no curriculum for self-contained Special Education. But 38-year Lowell Special Ed veteran Susan Smolak, volunteer Jessica Gallant and myself developed a program which stressed making murals as a team-based activity rooted in community tradition in which everyone found a role. This was a breakthrough for students who were used to being in a self-contained room and unable to work together.

Throughout the school, the democratic process of developing a classroom service project seemed the strongest for teaching students about their community and each other.

Staff became interested and some classroom debates became heated. Fourth-graders were split; should they work in community gardens, help the homeless or clean the park? If they cleaned the park, how long would it stay clean? What was their role in keeping it clean? While kindergartners honored the security staff with thank you cards, the sixth graders had to decide whether they should repaint, clean and decorate the bathrooms they used or adopt a school in South Africa that assistant principal Jen Moore visited in her travels.

O’Malley’s fourth grade classroom held a food drive for Casa Norte, a social service agency located blocks away from Lowell. They collected several boxes of goods, and listened intently to guest speakers from the organization as well as the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “I learned that my community is sacred” was the response sixth grader Griselda gave in a year-end evaluation of the program.

Ultimately, Peace Games aims to teach youth better ways to resolve tensions. Dunn connects her current role to past work with juvenile offenders in teaching “a better way to cope with conflict” and notes that among youth in the system there is “a lack of knowledge of opportunity.” The language of peace challenges the staff and volunteers to see themselves as peacemakers rather than disciplinarians. The doors at Lowell are now emblazoned with the words “PEACE MAKERS” in red, white and blue paint. With time students may come to believe in the term. But teaching peace is certainly an evolutionary process for all involved.