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NYC brings violence interrupters and other mentors to 138 schools

One man in a suit stands in front of a microphone with rows of people standing behind him.

Mayor Eric Adams and schools Chancellor David Banks announce Project Pivot on the steps of the education department’s Lower Manhattan headquarters.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Nearly 140 New York City public schools will partner with a wide range of community groups that provide mentorship, counseling, and violence interruption programs, Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday.

In drafting the program last April as part of his executive budget, Adams described it as a way to bring violence interruption — a technique that deploys trusted community members into neighborhoods with high levels of gun violence to prevent conflict — into schools following an uptick in the number of weapons showing up on campuses last year.

But officials stressed Thursday that the community group partners will offer far more than violence interruption, and cast the program as a way to open the schoolhouse doors to organizations and community members not typically involved in education.

“Today we have pivoted, and we have opened the doors to the entire village to educate our children. This is a significant change in how we educate in this city,” Adams said on the steps of the education department’s Manhattan headquarters, flanked by hundreds of community group staffers, students, and educators.

The $9 million initiative, covered by federal stimulus funds, will serve 138 schools across the five boroughs, with the largest number in the Bronx, according to city officials. Schools were selected based on how many disciplinary incidents and suspensions they had last year, as well as rates of chronic absenteeism and other measures, according to the education department. 

Participating schools can choose from a wide selection of partners ranging from Life Camp, a violence-interruption organization in Jamaica, Queens, that provides “safe corridors” and gang intervention, to “All Access Golf,” a group that gives kids “an entryway to the sport through education of golf fundamentals,” with a particular focus on getting more Black people playing the sport, according to a vendor list obtained by Chalkbeat.

Another organization, 100SUITS, advertised services as varied as entrepreneurship, art therapy, and “Bitcoin clubs,” according to the vendor list.

Also participating is the Bronx Youth Empowerment Program, whose executive director, former City Council member Andy King, was booted from the legislative body last year over ethics charges, the Daily News first reported.

The education department encouraged the community groups to offer after-school and Saturday programs to help kids fill “idle time,” said Aaron Barnette, deputy director of the education department’s Office of Safety and Prevention Partnerships.

But ultimately, individual schools can decide their plans with their partners, and can run programs during the school day.

Most schools participating in Project Pivot are receiving about $60,000 for the initiative, according to education department budget documents. Of that, roughly $50,000 is earmarked for the vendor, and another $10,000 or so can cover after-school hours for education department staffers.

The initiative aims to engage roughly 10,000 students overall, Barnette said. Schools will measure attendance, behavior incidents, and graduation rates for students participating in the program. Every student participant will also take an “attitudinal survey” before and after participating in the program.

“What we really hope to have take place … is a change in the perception they have of themselves,” Barnette said. 

Seventeen-year-old Adesola Ayeku, who attended Thursday’s press conference, said he’s benefited greatly from joining Umoja, a community organization that provides mentorship for young men, and is excited to see the program get a wider reach.

“We were boys, but along the way we became men. We’re still building so we can become kings, the best versions of ourselves,” said Ayeku, a senior at Preparatory Academy for Writers in the Bronx.

And while education department officials were quick to caution that the initiative isn’t just about violence, some groups will try to tackle neighborhood violence head on.

Camara Jackson, the founder of Elite Learners, Inc., said her group will place violence interrupters and staffers who know the community outside schools, in bodegas, and in nearby parks to “ensure a safe transition to and from schools.”

Last school year saw a marked uptick in the number of weapons showing up at city public schools, with many students reporting that they were carrying pepper spray and tasers to stay safe on their commutes.

The number of guns that turned up at schools also leapt last year.

Jeffrey Butts, a professor at CUNY’s John Jay College who has studied the effectiveness of violence interruption programs, said the technique has the potential to improve behavior among some students, but said the challenge will be vetting the quality of the community organizations and training their employees.

“It’s an easy thing to say, and it’s a different thing to actually pull it off by finding people who have the right skillset to do that and actually building those skills in people,” he said.

Project Pivot is far from the city’s first effort to bring community-based organizations into schools.

The community schools program launched under former mayor Bill de Blasio funds more than 300 schools to partner with community-based organizations to provide “wraparound” support like mental and physical health services. 

That program received nearly $200 million in funding during the 2018-19 school year, according to the Independent Budget Office, with schools getting more than $800,000 each on average.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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