In May 2019, Many Hands members chose Access Youth to receive the Many Hands $100,000 Impact Grant. Four months later, Access Youth launched its first Peer Mediation Program at Ballou High School in Southeast DC. The program is designed as the capstone of a four-year program that gives at-risk youth access to the skills, resources, and support they need to stay in school and out of the criminal justice system.
As Access Youth founder and Executive Director Jodi Ovca explains, “What makes [the peer mediation] program truly special is the focus on raising up the voices and the choices of the youth we serve. This approach creates a unique and poignant experience for participants, and increases their likelihood of success, since the ideas, plans, and changes they commit to are their own. As a result, these students have become advocates and ambassadors for restorative justice, equity, and real change, both in their schools and communities.”
Fifty 11th grade students enrolled in the new program and went through four full days of training to become peer mediators and mentors to younger students. The first cohort of Access Youth Peer Mediators were eager to give back to their fellow students the type of support they received from Access Youth staff, and they expressed pride in having been selected for the program, in recognition of the progress they had made in the program.
Then COVID-19 arrived in the region, and schools shut down. Many students found themselves isolated without the support and safety of their peers and school communities. Many experienced food insecurity. Many risked becoming academically disengaged and falling further behind or even being forced to repeat a grade. This risk was particularly acute for Access Youth students, who are often referred to the program due to low academic performance, exacerbated by chronic truancy and behavioral challenges.
Acess Youth staff quickly swung into action. The six program managers who oversee programming at Ballou, Anacostia, and Eastern High schools identified students at risk of failing a course (which would result in a failure to promote) and began working closely with them, their teachers, and school staff to create plans to raise their GPAs with extra credit activities, including Access Youth’s for-credit Life Skills classes and Peer Mediation Program. As a result, 85% of students remain engaged with Access Youth. However, 15% of students have been unable to participate in online programs because they lack computers or connectivity. Access Youth staff are currently exploring options to get technology and Internet access in the hands of each of their students.
In addition, program managers are working hard to connect in person with students. Ballou, Anacostia, and Eastern are all food distribution centers for DC, creating opportunities to meet safely at lunchtime. These touchpoints offer a sense of normalcy and structure that many are craving during this uncertain time.
Once school resumes, Access Youth hopes to have the first Access Youth Peer Mediator cohort shadow program managers during Truancy/Student Support Team mediations before beginning to work more independently as peer mediators and mentors. Ultimately, Ovca and her team envision an equitable school system that incorporates peer mediation training as standard practice. Such a system, they believe, would empower students with essential life skills while building their confidence and creating a community for which they feel pride and responsibility.