Why one Philly elementary school is paying kids not to fight

A Mitchell Elementary student walks by a bulletin board that promotes the number of days eighth-grade students have gone without getting into fights. Students will earn $100 each at graduation if they do not resort to physical violence.

Mikel Lindsay is acutely aware what the world thinks of him — a 14-year-old attending a public school in a particularly tough corner of Philadelphia.

“People look at me and say, ‘You should be fighting,'” said Lindsay, an eighth grader at Mitchell Elementary at 55th Street and Kingsessing Avenue.

But that’s not him, Lindsay said. And this year, he’s proving it. He’s part of an eighth-grade class whose principal is attempting an unusual and, some would say, audacious experiment: If Mikel and his 32 classmates make it to graduation with no physical altercations, each gets a $100 bill.

As of Friday, the Mitchell eighth-graders’ streak of peaceful days hit 70, no small feat for students surrounded by people responding to problems with fists, and worse.

Even in the nation’s poorest big city, the school’s hard-luck Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, Kingsessing, sticks out: 81 percent of Mitchell’s students live below the poverty line. Some are homeless, many are hungry, and some are essentially raising themselves. Kingsessing is also among the city’s most violent corners, police data shows.

And the school has not been spared. By this point in the 2015-16 school year, nearly a quarter of its eighth-graders had been suspended at least once. And on a 1-to-100 school district measure of academics, climate and growth, Mitchell had scored just 3.

But on both counts, the school has made significant gains under the watch of Principal Stephanie Andrewlevich. The $100 incentive was her idea — a way to promote peace not just for the older students, but for the whole school. 

“I wanted to challenge them to be what their families see in them, what we know they are,” said Andrewlevich, pausing in the hallway last month to hug a student who rushed at her with a big smile. “They have a choice — to become the violence they see in their day-to-day lives, or to be peaceful models for our school and our community.”

Do incentives pay off?

Research out of Harvard University suggests that financial rewards, when offered by educators, are most effective for things that children can control — such as doing homework or reading books. Well-designed incentives can make a difference in schools, said Brad Allan, a researcher at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard.

For one of his lab’s studies, Allan and other researchers examined the use of incentives in 250 schools in five cities, including the effects of incentives on behavior goals. He said he had not heard of schools specifically offering students cash to not fight, but he endorsed the goal.

“Focusing on inputs is exactly how incentives should be used,” Allan said, “and it sounds like that’s what Mitchell is doing.”

The concept is not a new one for Andrewlevich, now in her third year as principal. She and her team have had success setting a goal around one target behavior with one group of kids as a lever for the whole school. When absenteeism was a problem, they targeted a small group of at-risk students and saw attendance improve. They did the same with a focus on reading skills in the early grades.

Andrewlevich came up with the no-fighting challenge after the eighth graders’ Outward Bound trip in late September. She recalled watching the class working together, sharing food at lunch, getting along, making sure no one was left out, and generally showing their best selves. Soon after, she Googled “Philly teens” and came up with a litany of bad news: shootings, drugs, ordinary conflicts spiraling into dark and dangerous places.

It rankled her. The kids she knows are not perfect, but they are funny and smart. They have dreams, and they care about the world, and they are capable of great things.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Eighth-grade students work on math problems with teacher Laura Steinberg. The 33 young people have been challenged to make it to graduation without fighting.

Eighth grade can be a tough time for any young person, with students changing physically, keenly attuned to peer pressure and being cool.

And she knew soon the Mitchell eighth graders would be released into the much wider, potentially tougher pool of high school, away from the smaller world of elementary school and the teachers who have come to love and appreciate them over the years.

‘Just don’t want to fight any more’

So Andrewlevich issued the group challenge — if anyone slips up, the whole class loses out on the cash. She hopes a sponsor will come forward, but if one does not, she’s committed to putting up the $3,300 herself.

The principal would love to find a bank partner, perhaps, and use the reward as a way to teach students financial literacy.

(The Mitchell challenge is not district-sponsored, but Lee Whack, a schools spokesman, said that the system is “all about schools using evidence-based frameworks in order to improve school climate.”)

Conflict, Andrewlevich told her students, is natural. Anger is OK. But you can handle it without getting physical.

The broader change in thinking seemed secondary, at first; the students were motivated by the money.

“They’d tell each other, ‘Don’t mess up my $100!,’ when there was a problem in the hallway and it seemed like a fight might happen,” the principal said.

But as the weeks went on, the eighth-graders internalized the message. No one has forgotten it, but staff rarely hear the students mention the cash these days.

There are daily reminders: It’s day 50! It’s day 63! There’s a buzz in the building, a movement. Eighth graders conduct peer-mediation sessions with younger students, and the school will soon open its “Peaceful Place,” a room for students to cool down and practice conflict-resolution techniques.

Violence is down, school-wide, but the eighth graders especially have shown remarkable progress. In Andrewlevich’s first year at the school, students ended up at the police station for mediation multiple times, she said. So far this year, only 8 percent of the eighth-graders have been suspended. That’s down from 17 percent at the same point last year and 21 percent in 2016.

Last year, Zakiya Barnes-Wiggins “was always trying to fight somebody,” she said matter-of-factly, the same way she talked about the math test she’d just taken. “But now, I don’t use my hands. I talk about it. And it’s better this way — our teachers can teach more.”

The 14-year-old said some aren’t fighting because they want the $100 “but mostly, we just don’t want to fight anymore.”

Her mom, Pattie Barnes, said the challenge has meant a world of difference for Zakiya.

“This is the first year that I didn’t have a phone call about her behavior,” Barnes said. “I used to hear about her fighting all the time.”

Barnes said offering the incentive is a good idea, a display of how committed the school is to its students.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Barnes.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Victoria Smith, an eighth grader at Mitchell Elementary, says she and her classmates are learning about healthy conflict resolution in a challenge that will pay each $100 if they make it to graduation with no fighting.

Victoria Smith, another eighth grader, said not fighting felt natural now: “We’re just stopping all the drama. We’re squashing any type of issues or conflict; if people are tempted, we calm them down, separate them.”

The money would be nice, she said — Smith thinks she’d give it to her mom to buy school supplies for next year — but it’s not about that anymore, she said.

Society “thinks of us as fighters, people who can’t control themselves,” said Smith, shrugging. “But we’re different from that. I believe in my classmates — this is making us better.”

Make no mistake: Fighting and suspensions are down building-wide to its lowest level since Andrewlevich came to the school, but Mitchell isn’t peaceful at all times. Though the eighth graders have had no fights since the initiative started in late September, students in other grades have thrown punches.

And the challenges of the neighborhood are very real. The students were playing outside at recess in late January when a shooting occurred across the street.

Half the kids saw the shooter run out of a house and into an alley; staff had to quickly shepherd the children inside while helicopters hovered. Mitchell was on lockdown for two hours.

Some students were visibly shaken, others angry, and others acted as if it were no big deal, the principal said.

“Far too often, they feel the pressure to say it’s normal, but it’s never normal for a child to have to be exposed to violent crime when they’re outside to play in a safe school zone,” Andrewlevich said. “It’s not OK for the kids to get comfortable with this.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Stephanie Andrewlevich, Mitchell Elementary’s principal, came up with the idea to pay eighth graders from refraining from fighting.

So the school is doing its best to turn that moment into something bigger. It’s planning a rally for peace and other activities, using the eighth graders’ peaceful streak as a jumping-off point to show what is possible.

And yes, Andrewlevich knows some might see her offer as something dark, as bribery.

“I don’t,” she said. “I see it as an investment in our kids.”