USC Joint Education Project Makes a Difference
By Pamela J. Johnson
At the playground at Norwood Street Elementary School, three second-graders begin squabbling, each certain he is the rightful owner of a wildly popular Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card.
As the shouting escalates to shoving, one of the boys snatches the prized card out of another one's hand.
"Hey, you guys!" yells Naya Bloom, marching up to the boys.
The children snap to attention the moment they see Bloom, who oversees Norwood's Peace Games, a program that relies on USC College student volunteers and teaches children conflict-resolution skills. The nationwide program is in its fifth year at the 1,200-student campus, one of USC's Family of Schools.
Children who understand empathy, respect and cross-cultural sensitivity, advocates say, are less likely to ever commit an act of violence.
"How could you have handled that differently?" Bloom asks the now-chagrined boys on the playground.
"By talking it out?" offers one, bending to tie a renegade lace on his shoe.
"By sharing it?" asks another.
"By tearing it into three pieces?" asks the third boy with a laugh.
A Challenge Ahead
Bloom is pleased. The boys remembered their lessons: There are always alternatives to fighting. And humor helps. But Bloom knows that getting students to bring Peace Games lessons they learned in the classroom to the playground and ultimately to their homes can be a challenge.
That is why Bloom is grateful for the USC students, who play an integral role in the program. Each year, dozens of students teach Peace Games at Norwood through the College's Joint Educational Project. Many earn course credit.
Peace Games officials hope eventually to expand the program to middle and high schools.
"USC right now is a critical part of our continued growth," says Alice Green, the group's Los Angeles regional director. "The university and JEP have been very aggressive in supporting community outreach. And we're a recipient of that support."
A Good Marriage
Now 33 years old, JEP is among the oldest service-learning programs in the country. The program connects students and their academic courses with schools, hospitals and organizations in the region. Through mentoring and volunteer work, USC students learn what it takes to create a community.
Largely as a result of JEP, The Princeton Review recently named USC one of 81 nationwide "Colleges With a Conscience." The schools were selected from a pool of 900 institutions.
Green praises the partnership between JEP and Peace Games.
"It's been a good marriage," Green says inside her one-woman office, donated space on a top floor of a high-rise building overlooking downtown Los Angeles. "And it gets better and better each year."
Initially sponsored by Harvard University, Peace Games began in 1992 and became a nonprofit four years later.
Bloom recalls the disturbing trend that prompted Norwood to launch the program in 2001.
"There were a lot of racial slurs on the playground," recounts Bloom, director of Norwood's Healthy Start, aimed at connecting students and their families with community resources. "There were a lot of punching and fighting. Then there were cases of bird mutilation. That was the culminating thing that made us ask, 'What can we do?'"
That year, Norwood obtained a $316,000 grant from the state Attorney General's Office and Department of Education earmarked for violence prevention. Some funds were used to implement Peace Games at Norwood, now the model school for three others in the region.
Last year brought the end of the grant, and Norwood began looking at ways to continue to fund the program. Again, JEP stepped up to the plate.
The Nuances of Peace
Officials at JEP and Norwood obtained a $10,800 grant through USC Neighborhood Outreach that allowed a social work graduate student to act as site director at the school. A grant of $11,000 was secured for the coming year, says Susan Harris, JEP director of academic development.
Carmen Antoun, 21, an international relations senior, teaches Peace Games at Norwood, following a curriculum.
One game meant to instill teamwork has a group form a circle holding hands. Two students in the circle clasp hands through a Hula Hoop. The goal is to pass the Hula Hoop around without breaking the circle.
Others teach the power of body language and voice tone. One asks a student to imagine being hungry. The student has to communicate this feeling silently and without moving any part of the body or face. Finally, the student can use gestures before being allowed to speak.
Antoun understood her impact after she asked students to write about their favorite peacekeepers of all time. Her name appeared just below their mothers, fathers and Martin Luther King Jr.
"I don't expect this program to wipe out all gang violence or anything like that," she says. "But what it does is raise their awareness and gives them an alternative to violence."
At Norwood, the message is clear. A colorful mural outside the Oak Street campus, about a mile from USC, depicts children of various ethnicities holding hands under a rainbow. Students painted the mural on a wall usually scarred by graffiti.
Inside the school, walls are blanketed with messages such as, "Peace is as good as ice cream." In the playground, another mural declares, "Peace Around the Universe." Inside classrooms, students post hand-scrawled advice such as, "Never leave someone out."
Such notes hang on the walls inside a fifth-grade classroom, where student Manny Tamayo shares his lessons.
"When someone cuts me down now," Manny says, "I just walk away."