The Kids are All Right: How Somerville Schools Instill Good Citizenship

by Ilan Mochari

“Mediation is a way to work out fights or disagreements,” says Taylor Green. She is talking to Roberto Dourado and Peter Gutierrez, who have one heck of a disagreement.

“We don’t take sides, we don’t decide who’s right or wrong,” adds Autum Thornton. “What we do is listen and try to help you find the best solution.”
Green and Thornton explain the mediation process. Then Dourado speaks. “I was talking to Eimy, and then he rudely comes over and like, just grabs her, and then takes her – while we’re having a conversation – and just takes her to the other side of the class and just talks to her, like I was nothing.”
“I don’t need your permission,” interrupts Gutierrez.
“Can we keep it one at a time please?” says Green.
Dourado continues. “That’s it. He’s rude. He doesn’t respect anyone. Ever.”
“Can we please speak respectfully, please?” says Green.
We learn Dourado and Gutierrez have had no prior conflicts and that they were hallway acquaintances prior to the Eimy incident.  When it is Gutierrez’s turn to talk, he says, “I really don’t like this kid. I think he’s nothing.”
“I think you should speak respectfully, please,” says Thornton.
“He’s always, like, that player, you know, just after the girl,” says Gutierrez. “And I’m really good friends with Eimy, and I’m really defensive. I’m looking for the best. You know? And I just know Roberto is nowhere near that. I heard some rumors about him and other girls before, how it always ended sour, and how it was always his fault. You know? It’s – I just don’t want that to possibly happen to Eimy.”

All this took place on a Thursday morning in December at a round table in Room 228 at Somerville High School (SHS, 81 Highland Ave).
With Alice Comack, Director of Mediation for the Somerville Public Schools (SPS), watching, five student mediators – the four named above and Eimy Bonilla – ad-libbed a mediation session for a Scout reporter.
In other words, the above incident did not actually happen. Dourado and Gutierrez improvised the story. Thornton and Green mediated the proceedings as if they were real. And a bemused Bonilla sat silently while Dourado and Gutierrez added layers to their fictional battle over her best interests. (Confidentiality agreements precluded the discussion of actual cases.)
Since its inception in 1989, the mediation program has been a hallmark of the SPS’s multi-pronged approach to teaching good citizenship. And “good citizenship,” if anything, is a concept with many prongs: ethics, the pledge of allegiance and constitution, social and environmental responsibility, civics, service learning, and even the art of writing “thank you” notes. In the wide realm of civic education and citizenship training, you’re bound to find data on all of the above and then some.
Peter Levine, Research Director of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, uses three broad categories: knowledge, which encompasses fact-based learning about the government, the law, society and civil rights; values, which addresses the often nebulous rubrics of morals, ethics and justice; and skills, which covers topics such as how to vote, how to organize a social movement and how to run a meeting.
Though mediation programs, which train students in all three categories, are hardly unheard of, they are far from commonplace in United States schools. Up-to-date statistics are difficult to find, but anecdotal evidence suggests the programs are on the wane. “I’ve been doing this work for 25 years, and this year is probably the worst year for peer mediation in my memory,” says Richard Cohen of Mediation Associates in Watertown. “Fewer schools have them now than in the past, and it’s because of the economy.”
In all areas of education, gauging results is a thorny business. Civic learning is no exception. For one thing, many areas of “good citizenship” are subjective and loaded with intangibles. For another, determining whether students become “good citizens” – whatever that means – requires keeping tabs on them after they graduate. How, then, can schools judge their own teaching of good citizenship? The SPS uses surveys. Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi cites the Health Survey (see chart), which shows slight declines in both bullying and drug/alcohol/cigarette usage in 2010 compared to 2008.  In addition, the district administers a Qualia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) survey, in which “students give us their sense of school culture. The faculty takes it too. We compare the results, and then we address the needs,” he says.
Still, aside from the fact-based portion of civic education – and the barrage of stats regarding drugs and bullies – assessing a student’s civic education can be difficult. For what it’s worth, the mediators at SHS – all of whom are seniors – were quick to point out how their training has benefited their personal lives and career goals. For Gutierrez, who wants to be a police officer in Somerville, the training has helped him grasp how to work through two sides of a contentious dispute through communication.
For Bonilla, a long-term goal is to build an orphanage in El Salvador (from where she moved when she was eight). “I know that if I go to another country and ask to build an orphanage, I’ll need to talk to a lot of different people,” she explains. “So just knowing how to talk to someone in a neutral way, not being like, ‘So I want this, and you’re going to do this for me,’ more like, ‘I want this to be done, how can you help me and how can I help you?’”

The mediation program is far from the only tool Somerville schools use to instill good citizenship. Here’s a sampler of some others:
Graduation requirements. At the upper school level of Somerville’s charter school, Prospect Hill Academy (PHA, 50 Essex St, Cambridge), students are required to complete 60 hours of community service in order to graduate. The requirement complements two school-wide community service days.
In-class programs. Last year, under the auspices of the nonprofit Generation Citizen, a Tufts student worked with Jim Roscoe’s law elective at SHS. The undergrad asked Roscoe’s students which government issues they cared about. The answers? Job opportunities for teens and community revitalization. The undergrads then designed programs for the students to take action on those issues.
Community Service Learning Projects. Four years ago, PHA was one of 12 high schools in the country selected as a pilot school for a community service program administered through Purdue University’s engineering department. Since then, the program, called EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service), has been “an incredibly powerful cultural force in our school and in the community,” says Head of School Jed F. Lippard. Specifically, three programs have emerged:

•  Senior seminars, in which 12th graders get individual service-learning opportunities. At a project’s conclusion, students do dissertation-style presentations in front of experts and faculty. One of the projects from 2009-10 was a handbook about cleaning up Somerville’s Brownfield sites.
•  Two full-fledged EPICS courses and an EPICS student club. One of last year’s projects was the redesigning of a city bike rack to make it a form of living architecture at PHA. In 2008-09, PHA students helped to install the first green roof in Somerville at St. Polycarp Village (corner of Temple St and Mystic Ave) through collaboration with Somerville Community Corporation (337 Somerville Ave) and Apex Green Roofs (170 School St).
•  Enrichment Term (E-Term), three weeks in June when 10th and 11th graders complete projects, often in tandem with nonprofits. Preparation begins in October, with students forming teams and developing proposals. One of last year’s projects was the creation of downloadable podcasts in partnership with Groundwork Somerville (21 Properzi Way) to teach people about the Mystic River.

Through these and other service-learning projects, PHA students have learned “how to write professional emails, make calls to ask for interviews, and to meet someone out in the community,” says Michael Moretti, E-Term Coordinator (and science teacher).
Of course, the PHA kids are not the only all-stars of community service. At SHS, the four-year-old Community Service Club (CSC) has burgeoned to 110 members. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, more than 50 students crammed inside Room 327. SPS Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Capuano was on hand to discuss volunteer opportunities within the school system, such as tutoring younger students.
In the current school year, CSC members have assisted the Somerville Growing Center (22 Vinal Ave) and the Somerville Homeless Coalition (1 Davis Sq). In addition, CSC is a partner with the nonprofit Boston Cares, where club advisor (and SHS guidance counselor) Anne Herzberg has connections. The CSC was born in the 2007-08 school year, when four students approached Herzberg with the idea. Herzberg attributes the club’s rapid growth both to the sheer appeal of voluntarism and to online marketing: The CSC boasts a popular Facebook page and diligently sends email reminders of upcoming meetings and events.
From both SHS and the upper school of PHA, a citizenship ethos filters down to lower grade levels. The peer mediators program, for example, mediates cases not only at SHS but also at every elementary school. In addition, under Comack’s guidance, there are now programs at Winter Hill Community School (115 Sycamore St), Arthur D. Healey School (5 Meacham St), East Somerville Community School (8 Bonair St) and Dr. Albert F. Argenziano School (290 Washington St).
Even at schools that do not have their own peer mediators, students and faculty employ mediation tools to resolve conflicts. Anne Foley, principal of the John F. Kennedy Elementary School (5 Cherry St), shares a story of a 5th grader who recently told her that “someone had said this or that about him. So I later talked to the other young man and confronted him with the information. I got his side of it. And then I brought them together and we talked about it. And I said to them, ‘I’m not going to tell you that you have to be friends. But you have to be kind and respectful to each other. And in this case, would it be possible to shake hands and agree you can let this situation go?’
“One of them said, ‘I’ve got glue on my hands.’ So I asked them both, ‘Could you just do a distant high five?’ And they did.
“And they left the office talking to each other with smiles on their faces.”

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