Special Report
School & District Management Commentary

Channel Student’s Energy to Social-Justice Projects

By Xian Barrett — January 04, 2013 3 min read

Imagine your own beautiful child in a moment of anger, miscommunication, or poor judgment. Imagine if instead of a scolding, loving redirection, or a discussion of how to make better decisions, your pride and joy was handcuffed, whisked off to jail, and denied any likelihood of college or future gainful employment. In Chicago, for many parents, this is the daily reality.

On the other hand, imagine students directing that energy for youthful indiscretion toward surveying and working to improve our communities. Imagine students collaborating with other young people and allies on projects for social change. What difference could that make?

The Chicago I know is one where students are approximately 15 times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than their contemporaries in New York City, one where students of color are disproportionately affected by these arrests. Similar disparities exist in suspension data. The vast majority of these arrests and suspensions were for nonviolent, minor infractions. Most tragically, community violence often claims our students’ lives—some two dozen Chicago public school students are killed in our city streets each year.

In this context, Chicago educators and students founded the Chi-NOLA project. Led by Bill Lamme, a history teacher at Thomas Kelly High School, and Joyce Sia, a former Social Justice High School math teacher, Chicago students have spent the last six spring breaks in New Orleans contributing to the post-Katrina rebuilding work. Over the years, hundreds of students have participated. I have been fortunate enough to spend the last five spring breaks with students on this project.

Unlike many field trips and travel learning projects, the Chi-NOLA project specifically recruits a demographically and academically diverse student group. Rather than asking, “Who would represent the Chicago schools best on the trip?” we ask, “Who would grow most from this opportunity?” While this can be challenging, the benefits of taking many students who otherwise would never have this opportunity are more than worth it. Beyond the direct service work of restoring houses, schools, and community facilities, students also study the conditions in New Orleans. We center the project on the principles of service learning. Students must: prepare ahead of the trip by researching New Orleans’ history and communities; approach the work of the project from a sense of solidarity, rather than a charity motive; and reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve helped others through their work.

The impact on the New Orleans community is concrete and apparent; the impact on the Chicago community is more subtle, but at least as profound. By bringing together groups of students across lines of identity, race, and socioeconomics, students learn how to get along with each other and collaborate to create beautiful, positive work. When students build a home together halfway across the country, they realize they can improve relations on their blocks or in their classrooms.

See Also

What is the most effective approach for maintaining discipline and a positive climate in the public schools?

Education Week Commentary asked six thought leaders to share their answer to this question in Quality Counts 2013. Read the other responses.

Too often, students get caught in discipline loops where their daily frustration leads to destructive behavior, and zero-tolerance policies make them feel unwelcome and even more frustrated at school. They feel powerless and unvalued. Through social-justice and service-learning projects, students develop their ability to exact powerful good on society and the skills necessary to de-escalate conflict and turn to collaboration. Concretely, this has led experienced Chi-NOLA participants to develop peace circles and peer juries in their schools to spread this feeling of power over punishment to other students.

In its years, Chi-NOLA has not only restored sections of New Orleans, it has also transformed a small part of our school-to-prison pipeline into a pipeline from school to beautiful personal and community futures.

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