from the Jewish Exponent
By Rachel Kurland
When an early morning fight broke out at Cheltenham High School in May 2017 and quickly went viral, neighboring institutions were quick to break it up.
The incident began between two female students, 6ABC reported, but it escalated quickly as two more jumped in with punches. Those four girls were arrested and left eight teachers injured.
Violent fights have been at ongoing problem at the high school, but it’s a problem the district hopes to resolve, starting with the lower grade levels.
“There was all kinds of buzz about what was going on at the high school,” recalled Rosalie Guzofsky, Gratz College dean and vice president of academic affairs. “I thought, ‘I live in Cheltenham, I work in Cheltenham, and Gratz College is in Cheltenham, and we specialize in education. … We should approach the school district to see if we could help them.’”
She pitched the idea to other Gratz faculty members, since the college has a master’s program in safe schools. A lightbulb went off for that group of women and, within a week, they met with Cheltenham School District Superintendent Wagner Marseille, who agreed their idea was beneficial.
They discussed types of professional development workshops Gratz could offer to teachers shortly after the viral fight occurred. The district settled on a customized program of four contracted workshops, which officially started in October 2017 and will continue through this school year.
The school they are training in, however, is not Cheltenham High School, but rather nearby Elkins Park School for fifth- and sixth-graders.
“I have children in the schools, and I attended the town hall that Dr. Marseille conducted,” added Naomi Housman, Gratz’s director of grants and strategy, “and many of those at the town hall made it clear that this is not just a high school problem. This is something that needs to be addressed early down the line.”
Housman noted that Elkins Park School is a great place to start because it blends students from four elementary schools, who eventually merge together into high school. “So there’s really a need for community building and relationship building across that new group of kids.”
“The issues that come up in the high school really were an indicator of how the community has been built,” Guzofsky added. “[The altercation] was an indicator of how community needs to be built much earlier than the high school level.”
Gratz is just one of many institutions that has contracted its support to the school district, including the University of Pennsylvania and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which has worked with other schools in some capacity.
The comprehensive plan attempts to be more proactive to get to the real root of these violent outbreaks. Workshop training sessions expand teachers’ knowledge of restorative practice to build community and address and mend the foundation of certain behaviors.
“The strategy within restorative practice that we have been honing in on is called circle — creating a circle with students,” which creates an open dialogue in the classroom amid conflict, Housman said. “The teachers knew this was part of the big plan, but they didn’t really have professional development to help them figure out how to implement that, what it really looks like in the classroom.”
It’s too soon to say quantitatively how much of an impact it has made in the school so far, but Housman has heard some unofficial feedback from her daughter, who is enrolled at Elkins Park.
“She happened to visit a classroom where she saw a circle taking place, and she was sort of in awe,” she said. “She was really amazed by just the energy in the room, and that it was happening.”
Her teacher this semester implemented it, too. “She said, ‘Mommy, this teacher really wanted to know how we were doing after the [winter] break. She wanted to check in with us.’
“This is a district that is really committed to addressing culture and climate,” Housman said.
Superintendent Marseille said great things come out of challenges, and this is a prime example.
“What we are trying to do with Gratz College is put together a really comprehensive program where teachers are able to take the experiences at Gratz College or the sense of strategy that Gratz College is offering, and then turning that around really quickly,” he said.
More than 86 percent of the teachers surveyed rated the training highly impactful to their classrooms, he added.
Marseille said he intends to offer the training to other schools in the district in the near future, and continue the partnership with Gratz.
“We didn’t want this to be just a one-shot deal,” he said. “You don’t have to go far to find the experts.”
Guzofsky added that working within the community is a natural extension of the Jewish identity of Gratz.
“It’s very exciting for us to see that there are other people in the same community that are beginning to see us as much broader and more diverse for the community and beyond.” l