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Resolving conflict, one middle school at a time

Every day, countless children go to school across the country with open minds and a curiosity to see what the day will bring. Indeed, schools are built for this very reason: to teach our children about the fundamental subjects that they need to study to become successful, intelligent, and resilient adults. And yet, many kids go off to school each day with a worry that they will get teased, bullied, or suspended for getting in a fight. In fact, according to Bullying Statistics, 90% of 4th-8th graders report being victims of bullying. This isn’t a failure of our children or of any institution for that matter. It is, however, an indication of a strong need for better tools to deal with one of life’s most common realities—conflict.

This is the goal of the Domestic Harmonizer Program, which the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI) recently launched in collaboration with California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). The chief motivation behind our collaboration has been our unwavering belief—and experience—that education, specifically Conflict Resolution Education (CRE), is an effective method of addressing conflict in schools. Moreover, we know that, while conflict is part of life, including children’s lives, it does not necessarily need to result in violence or bullying or even become emotionally destructive for children. Dealing effectively with conflict, so that peaceful outcomes are obtained, is something that needs to be taught in schools along with other core subjects. And why not? Coping with conflict in a healthy way is a skill that youth can benefit from throughout their lives. “Students need to be taught ways of peacefully resolving conflict, just like we are taught other subjects,” says Forest Whitaker, founder and CEO of WPDI. “Our goal is to run a program that will help create more-positive school environments, and also provide youth with tools to better address conflict as they grow older.”

This is how the program evolved. Beginning in mid-2014, conflict resolution experts from WPDI and CSUDH set off to create a program that could meet the demand from schools seeking support in reducing suspension rates, bullying, and unsafe learning environments. We set out to create a unique program, one that was different from existing CRE curricula in schools. We determined that the best way to do that was to integrate methods that reinforce Positive Youth Development (PYD) in order to build from the strengths that youth already possess and foster stronger, more-positive relationships among them and enhance their leadership skills.

We knew that this program, while it had to be educational, also had to be exciting, interactive, and dynamic to capture students’ attention. We also knew that the program had to secure the buy-in of educators, who have already witnessed a wave of programs that have come and gone throughout the years and who would resist yet another program that would impose upon their already tight teaching schedules. After careful consideration and countless hours planning and writing, we created a curriculum that integrates CRE and PYD principals with Common Core standards in social studies, English, math, and science. “What we have now is a curriculum that is truly unique and can be used during academic classes as well as outside of the classroom,” says Monya Kian, Program Manager for WPDI and one of the lead curriculum designers. This integrative approach can make a real difference for students and teachers alike.”

What we needed next was a school willing to pilot the program, one that also possessed a strong leadership team and eagerness to pilot a program like this. After considering our options, we landed on Andrew Carnegie Middle School located in Carson, California. Carson happens to be the home of CSUDH, and also where Mr. Whitaker grew up. These synchronistic elements, combined with Andrew Carnegie Middle School’s preparedness to launch a program like this, met the criteria that we sought. It also helped that the school was in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—the second largest district in the United States, which could help with program expansion in the future. “The opportunity to work with Carnegie Middle School is simply fantastic,” said Dr. Mitch Avila, Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at CSUDH. “When we first visited, Dean John Davis from the College of Education and I immediately saw that Carnegie was a special place with administrators and teachers who were committed to providing their students with a safe, supportive environment. From the enthusiasm of Principal Nakata to the genuine concern shown by the teachers, we couldn’t be more fortunate than to partner with Carnegie.”

Andrew Carnegie Middle School currently enrolls over 900 students in grades 6-8. The school used to have a peer mediation program on campus years ago, and wished to bring back a similar initiative. “We are extremely excited to be partnered with CSUDH and WPDI to implement this one-of-a-kind program. This innovative approach will teach our students the essential life skills of conflict resolution and peace building. Through this program, we hope that it will make a difference in our students' lives and one day, they will make a difference in this world,” said Principal Cheryl Nakata.
An independent evaluator from CSUDH, Dr. Heather Kertyzia, will evaluate the program. The purpose of the evaluation is to assess the changes that the Domestic Harmonizer Program will bring to Andrew Carnegie Middle School. This includes evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the program so that the program continuously evolves and improves. “We’re looking for changes in two areas: academic knowledge related to conflict resolution, mediation, and restorative justice, and the presence of nonviolent attitudes, behaviors, and values within the student body.”

From August 8-10, trainers from WPDI and CSUDH provided a workshop in CRE to educators from Andrew Carnegie Middle School. The three-day training enabled both WPDI and CSUDH to learn more about the school’s assets, as well as its challenges. It also provided an opportunity for the school’s educators to learn helpful conflict resolution techniques and become familiar with the program. “The three-day training created a safe space for those of us in attendance to open ourselves up to the magnitude of the transformative impact the Domestic Harmonizer Program will have on our campus and beyond,” said Dr. Lynette Aldapa. “I look forward to the next three years; they will prove to be significant in the lives of our students, faculty, parents, and the whole Carnegie Family."

Less than a month after this teacher training, on September 6, Andrew Carnegie Middle School hosted the kick-off event for the Domestic Harmonizer Program. All of the school’s students and teachers, as well as officials from LAUSD, CSUDH, and WPDI attended the event. We are all excited and hopeful about the positive changes that this program can help shape on campus, and look forward to working with the talented educators of Andrew Carnegie Middle School to implement this program in the weeks and months ahead.