by Shelly Yanoff
One morning this December, the entire student body of the Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social justice came together in a small part of the auditorium in the large building that now houses a middle school and a high school in east Mount Airy.
The students were listening to a speaker who was telling the story of his escape from turmoil and danger in his distant homeland, Uganda, and his flight and life here now. Dennis Okema, who now works with Global Education Motivators, tells his story to help high school students understand the importance of working for peace anywhere and everywhere in the world.
The school was created to underscore that message.
Philadelphia’s history of both community and peace activism as well as its high violence and family-poverty rates provides the setting for young people to learn about the world and themselves through the prism of peace and social justice. From the beginning, the school was to be small but its vision large. For eight of its nine years of life, the high school was housed in a small building in a bucolic setting off Germantown Avenue.
Last year, the school district’s financial situation made the move to the newly vacant second floor of a large, industrial-looking school building necessary. In spite of the severe budget cuts of the last few years, the new principal and a small committed staff, joined by a home and school council and a community advisory group, are determined to “make it work.”
What makes the school different from other public high schools is its emphasis on connecting ideas about the pursuit of peacekeeping and integrating the importance of social justice and peace work throughout the four years.
All ninth graders take a course in social development and leadership; some students later participate in a global classroom project led by Global Education Moderators, where students connect with other young people and are urged to think about steps toward world peace. The senior projects require students to study an issue, undertake field work, connect with the people in the region working on it, explore ways to solve the problem, and make a year-end presentation to a panel of teachers and community members.
The students are required to perform 60-120 hours of community service. They are aided by a former school teacher who works with the students to assist them in their field work as well as support them in their community service requirements.
Some students take advantage of the school’s connection with Arcadia University and take classes at the nearby college; some participate in an advanced course in psychology, while others are working to raise funds to travel to Costa Rica for ten days over spring break to live with a family and undertake volunteer work there.
Back in Northwest Philadelphia, visitors enter the building, sign in and go through the weapons detector, climb the “early fifties” stairwell to reach the second floor: the Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice.
Once there, banners and posters welcome you and announce that “If you want peace, work for justice” and remind all that the work is old and new, demanding ongoing continuous commitment and engagement. Other posters, banners and signs – the work of Parkway students and supporters – present their individual and group hopes for the present as well as the future.
Today, the overwhelming majority of students (90 percent) of Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice go on to higher education, having been exposed to different ways of thinking about the world and their possible future role in it. Like its students, the school is very much a work in progress. – its challenges are many.
Shelly Yanoff, of Mt. Airy, a longtime advocate for children and education, is the former executive director of Puiblic Citizens for Children and Youth.