By Joshua Saleem, AFSC St. Louis Peace Education Program Director

When a 14-year-old walks into the classroom and immediately after seeing you says, “Not you again,” you can’t help but ask yourself the question, “Is this working?”

If there’s one constant question I’ve had over the last five months, it’s “Is this working?” Are my weekly trips to three local high schools having any impact? Will they choose peace instead of violence as a result of the hour each week they spend with me?                                                                                                                                         

Last fall, AFSC’s St. Louis Peacebuilding Program began working with 55 at-risk youth in three local high schools – McCluer, Northwest, and Shearwater. The goal of youth engagement at each school is to develop students into positive agents of change in their schools and community. Last semester’s focus was conflict resolution, providing students alternative nonviolent ways to deal with interpersonal conflict. In the spring semester, we'll focus on civic engagement projects.

When people asked me, “How are things going?” My answer (depending on the week) ranged from “Great!” to “Not so good.”

On a good week a student shares that he used something he learned the previous week to resolve a conflict he had with a teacher -- whereas in the past a similar conflict would have escalated to the point of him being suspended or given detention.

On a bad week a promising student has been suspended for fighting, and another student’s relative died as a result of gun violence. Those bad weeks can make you wonder if the work you’re doing is making a difference in the lives of youth. For at least one young man, I can say it has.

Keith is a freshman at McCluer, which selects students at risk for dropping out (based on behavior referrals, grades, and attendance) and places them in an Interpersonal Relations (IR) group. Each IR group meets once a day and provides students with extra support throughout the week.

Keith doesn’t say much at all during our weekly workshops; from conversations with teachers, we find out he has struggled with violent behavior and is rumored to have had some involvement in gangs.

Because Keith doesn’t say much, it’s difficult to know if he’s getting any of the messages about peacefully resolving conflict. However, on the last day of the semester, he reveals something.

Students are given pre- and post-surveys to observe any changes in their attitudes about violence and resolving conflict. When asked to describe a time he resolved a conflict without violence, he said, “At lunch someone made me drop my food, and I didn’t start a conflict.” A situation that is common to all school lunchrooms could have quickly escalated into violence but didn’t because of the tools Keith gained over the semester.

But he wasn’t the only one who learned something.

Students are given two to three goals at the beginning of each semester that are steps towards staying in school and ultimately graduating. An impressive 83% of the students in Keith’s IR class reached one or more of their goals, increasing the likelihood that they will stay in school and graduate.

So is this working? We’ve got four more months left in this school year, but initial feedback says we’re moving in the right direction.