Home > Philly youth program teaches conflict resolution, violence prevention

The classroom walls inside Achieve Academy East are papered with diagrams, but not of a topic you’d expect.

Driving the news: Middle and high school students here learn how to resolve conflicts and prevent violence as part of a program that teaches them skills educators say will help them survive in a city plagued by shootings.

  • Twenty students graduated from the Youth Conflict Specialists Program last week after spending weeks learning about empathy and how to deconstruct real-life issues like they are math problems.
  • They mapped out conflicts, emotions they felt, what happened and what could’ve been done differently.
  • Educators hope students take the lessons they’ve learned to help them avoid and de-escalate situations that could have life-altering consequences.

Why it matters: Youth gun violence is an escalating crisis in Philadelphia with more than 100 students shot during the last school year.

By the numbers: Since 2022, more than 350 people 17 and under have been shot throughout the city, 44 of them fatally, Philadelphia police tell Axios.

State of play: The partnership between Temple University and Excel Academy of Philadelphia is an intensive six- to nine-week program. It’s funded through 2025 by a $1.7 million grant from the Department of Justice.

  • It started three years ago as a pilot and has since expanded to Excel Academy’s North and South campuses.
  • Some students who graduate from the program return to classrooms as paid mentors, helping polish their résumés while serving as role models.

What they’re saying: Educators say the program is creating a “ripple effect of change” in Philly.

  • “I consider it to be holy work,” Temple professor Trisha Swed tells Axios. “In Judaism, they say if you save one person’s life you save a thousand lives.”

Between the lines: Many students involved in the program come from broken homes. They’ve lost loved ones to gun violence, struggled with having everyday needs met or held down jobs to help their families.

  • That’s overwhelming for youth still growing developmentally, educators say.
  • “It’s an opportunity to give [them] hope in a nightmare,” says Samantha Petroski, clinical director at Achieve Academy East.

Zoom in: Malaysia Gonzalez, a graduate who now serves as a mentor with plans to attend college, tells Axios her relationship with her mother improved after the program.

  • Recent graduates Scarlet Ortiz and Di’mere Allen tell Axios they were constantly getting into fights or acting out at school before getting involved with the program. Now they’ve explored the roots of their anger.
  • “I used my dad not being there for me as a crutch,” Allen tells Axios. “I can’t use that as a crutch ’cause there are Black kids who don’t have a dad getting money, getting their name up without it being in a bad way. They’re sitting there meeting presidents and all that. I can do that.”
  • “When I’m angry, nine times out of 10, I wanna get physical,” Ortiz said. “Before I came to this school, it would’ve been 10 out of 10.”

The bottom line: There was a long pause at the table where we were talking when everyone was asked what Philly would be like without this program.

  • “It would lose the wisdom of a lot of really impressive young people,” Temple professor Tricia Jones said.