Youth Advisers Bring Order and an Empathetic Ear
To Reach Students, Troubled Schools Turn to Young Adults Who Have 'Been There, Done That'

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Havoc was the order of the day at Bladensburg High School in Prince George's County.

Students were fighting, skipping classes and stealing cars from the parking lot.

Officials were stymied until they sought help two years ago from a national program designed to help schools by reaching out to troubled youths. Enter the youth advisers of the Violence-Free Zone, a program of the District-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who let the students know that they were there to help them. The advisers also brought a stronger message: Control of Bladensburg was going to return to the adults.

"Kids can't be controlled by cameras, curfews and cops," said Robert L. Woodson, president and founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. "Those are threats, and they won't respond to that. . . . The Violence-Free Zone inspires them to obey the rules by providing life witnesses to them [who show] that just because you are from a dysfunctional household or a troubled neighborhood, you don't have to be a troubled person."

The Violence-Free Zone, now also in Largo High School, has been praised by school officials and community leaders for helping to turn around troubled schools.

At the same time, the program has fallen prey to the budget ax. Funded by Prince George's schools for the 2006-07 school year, the program is in danger of ending soon unless $500,000 can be raised to save it, authorities said.

Community stakeholders recently gathered at First Baptist Church of Glenarden to try find ways to raise money to continue the program, which Superintendent John E. Deasy would like to expand to more schools, said his spokesman, John White.

White credited the program with resolving significant conflicts and behavior issues at Bladensburg and Largo.

At the meeting, a real estate developer pledged $100,000. Former Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington has promised to bring together some of his associates to provide additional funds, community activist Donna Dean said.

Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D), said the Violence-Free Zone is one of several programs Ivey's office has embraced to reduce calls for police assistance and "empower communities to take on crime at the grass-roots level."

Curtis Watkins, founder and executive director of LifeStarts, a nonprofit organization in Southeast Washington that administers the Violence-Free Zone program, said that, like Bladensburg, Largo had some serious issues.

"The kids were feeling like they could do whatever they wanted," he said. "They just had a sense of running the place, a sense of disrespect. There were a lot of problems, but then our youth advisers got in there and got to know the students and what was going on."

Watkins has assigned Bladensburg and Largo six youth advisers each. They help with counseling and mentoring students, patrolling hallways and maintaining order in sometimes-chaotic areas such as the cafeteria and in-school suspension rooms, he said.

Even the toughest students can relate to the youth advisers, who are young adults from their neighborhoods, officials said. Students tell the advisers about conflicts that might result in violence without feeling they are snitching, and they trust the advisers to help them navigate the maze of survival in an urban school environment, Woodson said.

"The youth advisers are not just counselors. They are witnesses to these children," Woodson said. "They can see, 'His dad was in jail,' or 'Her mom was a prostitute,' and 'He is from an area that has problems, but they are law-abiding citizens.' Kids who have ears that are closed to advice have hearts that are open to examples."

Monica Chavez, 17, a senior at Bladensburg, said she was skipping class, smoking marijuana, hanging with a rough crowd and planning to drop out when she met youth adviser Luky Robles last year.

Robles, 23, of the Riverdale Park area, had had many of the same experiences. As a student at Bladensburg a few years ago, she was "a wild child" who dropped out after getting pregnant, Robles said.

"At first I was like, 'Who are these people who are up here trying to talk to me?' " said Chavez, also of the Riverdale Park area. "Then, Luky started talking to me."

Chavez said she appreciated the way Robles took an interest in her and related her own experience.

"I really started listening to her," Chavez said. "Then, when she told me to go to class and stuff like that, I would go. I thought, 'She's had some of the same problems as me, and she's made it. Maybe I can, too.' "

Watkins said that young people are initially skeptical but that the advisers win them over by showing concern for the troubled students as well as those who are excelling. Robles said she reaches her students by showing them that they can turn their lives around.

"I tell them, 'Look, I understand what you are going through. Been there, done that . . . skipping school, drinking, partying.' But I also tell them how much I regret doing those things and tell them that they can make better choices," she said. "It's hard for adults to tell them what to do without knowing what they are going through. They know that I know."

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