Every school day, 430 high school students travel from all over Chicago to the city’s rough West Side and to North Lawndale College Prep charter high school, where they enter without passing through metal detectors.
“That’s something that the founders were adamant about,” says Nicole Howard, the principal of this 12-year-old charter school, which requires student uniforms. “They thought it was the wrong way to start the school day, with adults going through students’ pockets and backpacks.”
Instead, the students encounter a profusion of peace symbols on the wall, as well as an oversized “Days of Peace” chart—similar to those in factories that state the number of days without an injury. “Every day the school is free of major altercations, a peace symbol gets added,” Howard explains.
Rewards for achieving 150 consecutive days of peace range from dress-down days to a block party for the entire school. “Here peace is taught, monitored and evaluated,” Howard continues.
During daily homeroom, students receive mini-lessons on peace and mediation skills. “What happens if you get into a tiff? How do you avoid a fight? What resources can you draw on?” says Howard, recounting some of the questions these mini-lessons address. She adds that students take it upon themselves to make a difference. “If they see an argument starting, they’ll swoop in and say, ‘We don’t want to lose our Days of Peace. What are you guys arguing about? What can we do to help?’”
Because North Lawndale is a charter school, administrators can decide how to deploy its funds, and they have chosen an increased force of counselors over intensive security details. Freshmen are assigned a counselor on day one and stay connected until six months after graduation.
Last summer, 10 rising seniors attended an intensive, weeklong seminar on the nonviolent approach of Martin Luther King and emerged as Lawndale’s first group of Peace Warriors. Newly minted Peace Warrior Latrell Hassell says he learned tools to help solve conflicts among students. “I ask them about the history of the conflict,” Hassell says.
“I think it works because it’s a student coming to another student,” adds fellow Peace Warrior Darlissa Scott. “There’s a form of understanding. It’s more like companionship.”
Howard concludes that the college prep school is defying the odds. “It is possible to be on the West Side of Chicago and be in a school that has a 99 percent poverty rate among its students,” he says, “and still be at peace for most of the school year.”