By Shenaire Chandler
The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush
The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in Northeast Philadelphia has a new program where 30 students are trained to become relationship leaders to resolve school and community conflicts, as well as help build a positive atmosphere from within.
Relationships First (RF) has helped students build new connections with new people, make goals, and learn about fixing conflicts inside crucial relationships.
“The goal of RF is to build communities, stop violence, and then build leaders in school,” said Deauntra Smith, the Philadelphia School District’s Relationships First Specialist and Rush’s former RF mentor. He has been working with students in RF since the program was first introduced to the school in 2021.
Khidir Webster, a senior at Rush, is currently in his second year of being an RF coach.
“This is a fairly new concept in the Rush Community,” he said. “It’s both an organization and a method the Philadelphia School District has implemented. Instead of the typical outcome of suspensions when conflicts arise, we now go through a process of harming-healing circles, as well as other techniques to build a better community. As an RF member, you are the barrier between a person or group of people doing something wrong and a possible suspension.”
Deauntra Smith said the goal of Relationships First is “to build communities, stop violence, and then build leaders in school.”
Smith said teachers are part of the program, too.
“The goal is that everyone in the building knows how to do RF and that when harm is happening, people can come to a safe space and learn how to mitigate the harm or even stop the harm before we even get to violence,” he said.
One of the techniques that is used is a full day of community-building discussions
and activities that take place at the end of every academic quarter.
The school has multiple Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Days throughout the school year, where students are not assigned any academic work and instead participate in class discussions and activities surrounding structuring a better school community.
This technique has been passed down for millennia, Smith pointed out.
“SEL Day is not new!” he said. “We took the indigenous practice of ‘circle’ that has been done for thousands of years. Everything that many indigenous groups did was in a circle, and that’s how you built community. On SEL Day, we encircle our day with non-academic learning. You’re still learning! You’re learning about how to embody each other. You’re learning how to grow as a community. You’re learning how to build bonds with people.”
And none other than the students who trained are the ones who lead their classmates during SEL Day.
“We were trained first on how to communicate, listen, as well as come up with solutions for different situations. We really get to showcase our skills to our classmates during SEL day,” Nabihah Muhammed-Hill, an 11th grader, said.
“We start off with simple, fun questions, like, ‘what color are you feeling today?’ Once the
questions get more thoughtful, we are able to build a group discussion that turns into people’s true feelings about school or social issues and events.”
Many students throughout the school saw Relationship First and SEL Day as a necessity in their school community. Some looked forward to SEL Day as an opportunity to talk about different topics to new people in their grades to whom they haven’t spoken. Others used SEL Day as a break from schoolwork, giving students time to relax after a stressful academic period.
Joy Garofalo, a former student at Rush, saw SEL Day as a benefit to students socially and mentally.
“I think it’s nice to have a day where you can talk to new people about different topics,” she said. “I know a lot of people who are stressed out about grades. That’s why we have SEL Day. It’s time to relax and rewind.”
As students learn more about social interactions and communication, they get closer and closer to becoming great leaders in our society.