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School-church partnership produces anti-bullying program

School-church partnership produces anti-bullying program

School-Church Partnerships

JACKSONVILLE—A partnership between Arlington United Methodist Church and nearby Arlington Elementary School has led to many positive results since they began working together two years ago on a unique anti-bullying curriculum for grades K-5.

Arlington principal Kim Brown is quick to praise the church’s dedication to helping the school educate young students.

“The kids enjoyed it tremendously. It decreased bullying reports dramatically, and the program has even helped the school earn an improved rating from the state, from a D to a C, and only 5 points from a B,” she said.

Elementary students engaged with the anti-bullying curriculum showed improvements in academics and behavior.

“The program helped us overall with academics and behavior as the kids were kinder to one another.”

Most of the students at Arlington qualify for free school lunches, and many single-parent households can use all the help they can get with educating their young children.

Brown recently recalled one particular “lightbulb moment” for a group of fourth-grade boys who landed in her office.

Brown said that even when the boys got in trouble, they could verbalize why what they did was wrong, how to make amends and how to avoid future troubles. She also had a written handbook to refer to when dealing with them.

“I loved the program,” said Brown, who is beginning a new job at a local middle school. She has high praise for the faithful facilitators from Arlington.

“We had a church member volunteer for every one of the 16 classrooms in the school every Wednesday at 8:15 for six weeks. They brought text books for reading aloud, which helped with our reading scores, and good visuals and outlines. They even brought posters with our school mascot, the Dolphin, on them,” she said.

The curriculum materials were created by Arlington’s pastor Arlindall Burks, who joined the church in 2015.

Burks based the program on the concept of Ubuntu, which, like the practices of restorative justice, focuses on healing and reconciliation of broken relationships between individuals, communities and nations.

Burks’ earlier career in government had taken her to South Africa, where she learned about Ubuntu in relation to Nelson Mandela’s experience in healing that nation after his long imprisonment. Ubuntu is the foundation for the school program

Burks created the program as a part of her doctoral work at Candler School of Theology. Putting it into action in 2016 and 2017 fit beautifully with her church’s long-standing participation in the Duval Public School System Community Partners Program, as well as the basic tenets of The United Methodist Church.

Six units covered basic parts of the program but were geared to individual grades. They include:

  1. Creating Community—“We are Family” is the foundation of all other lessons. Students were given a photo of themselves to add to the family photo posted in their class, showing that they were individuals and part of a family at the same time.
  2. Communications—"Talking Together” required excellent listening skills, including body language, tone of voice and words.
  3. Ubuntu—"Learning and Living Together” introduced the idea of Ubuntu and restorative justice practices.
  4. When Bullying Happens—"Whose Job is it to Stop Bullying” introduced students to a common definition of bullying and to the understanding that preventing and intervening when bullying happens is the responsibility of the family.
  5. Circle Up—"Making Things Right” introduced students to the use of a “talking piece,” a chosen object held by a speaker in a small group that entitles them to be listened to while they are in possession of it.
  6. Peacemaking Children—"I am a Peacemaker” incorporates all the previous lessons.

All students began with the idea of being part of one family. The facilitators from the church were part of the family, too, as they showed up faithfully and carried the message.

Upon completion of the 6-week program, each student was awarded a certificate and a t-shirt identifying them as peacemakers.

Principal Brown reported that both years’ programs yielded short term results, including decreased bullying and a decrease in principal referrals for other disruptive behaviors. She also reported an increase in academic performance at all grade levels, which led to an increase in the school’s grade from the state.

Students continue to benefit from the lessons learned in the program.

The hope for long-term results is that students will continue to improve academically, have the knowledge to recognize and respond appropriately when they are being bullied and to acquire the life skills to stand up for others when they witness bullying.

In 2016, the first year of the program, the number of bullying incidents dropped from 18 the previous year to five for the same time frame from October through December. Facilitators benefitted as well, with volunteers becoming mentors to some of the children and stepping up to help with Wednesday night programs at church, where up to 60 youth are served each week.

Cheryl Claxton was a facilitator for the first-grade class for two years. She is a retired elementary school teacher with 37 years of experience and a life-long member at Arlington.

“I count the program a success, partly because it was school-wide, took place at the same time for everyone and continued as the children moved up in grades. There was an emphasis on building communication skills and building the classroom family,” she said.

“It is a very positive thing to get them when they’re little and stick to it every year as they build on the skills they learn, whether it is being a victim, or a bully or a bystander. We do a lot of role playing and acting out different scenarios. It has made a difference in the school culture.”

Although this program may be thought of as Pastor Burks’ creation, it was designed to be continued even when she is no longer at Arlington UMC, although that is not in the foreseeable future.

“I want this to continue and I stress that it is not about me, but a church community effort,” Burks said. “If you equip people, the program and benefits, will continue.”

—Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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