Efforts to reduce violence at four troubled schools in the District -- a school system in which 14 percent of students said they don't go to class because they feel unsafe -- got a boost yesterday with a $1 million gift from an oil company.
The National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington received the grant from ChevronTexaco Corp. to support its Violence-Free Zone initiative, an effort to stem the violent culture that plagues many of the city's schools.
Central to the initiative is the employment of young adults in schools in the neighborhoods where they grew up, often in trouble. Having transformed their lives, they serve as volunteer counselors.
"Violence can be reduced if we empower those who the kids look up to and respect," said Robert L. Woodson Sr., founder and president of the center.
The grant will be administered by a local nonprofit, the East Capitol Center for Change, at Davis Elementary School in Southeast Washington; Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center in Southeast, which enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade; Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast; and H.D. Woodson Senior High School in Northeast.
Counselors ages 25 to 30 have been volunteering for the past year or two in those four schools. The grant will allow the schools to increase the number of counselors and pay them a salary: Fletcher-Johnson will have six youth advisers, and the other schools each will have five.
The money also will fund several after-school activities. For example, some money would be used to purchase karts for a go-kart club in which some students they learn to build the devices as a reward for keeping up their grades, Woodson said.
The center started the Violence-Free Zone Initiative in 1997, after it successfully intervened among warring youth factions in the city's Benning Terrace public housing complex, he said.
The model for the intervention was adopted by schools in such cities as Dallas.
Woodson said he was "gratified" by the donation.
"ChevronTexaco feels it is critical to support the students, families and community partners who work tirelessly to unify the District of Columbia's schools as safe places for learning," Lisa Barry, vice president and general manager of government affairs for ChevronTexaco, said in a statement.
Many District schools have long been troubled by violence. A study released in 2003 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 14 percent of D.C. schoolchildren said they stayed away from classes because they feared violence.
Darrin Slade, principal of Fletcher-Johnson, said the youth counselors at his school have helped change the climate since they arrived last year.
They first acted as hall monitors, preventing skirmishes, and now they help tutor students and do one-on-one counseling.
"There has been a dramatic reduction in suspensions because of the youth counselors," he said. ". . . They provide strong female and male role models for the students. Many of our students come from broken homes and don't have that at home."
Edward Harris, 26, a youth adviser at Davis Elementary, said he chose an elementary school because he wanted to "get the problem solved before it becomes a big one."
Harris, who graduated from H.D. Woodson, said young people are often left to make too many of their own decisions, and they are "picking sides, the good side or the bad side."
"You have to let them know it is cool to do the right thing," he said.