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School Honored for Turnaround

Susan Notes:
It is uplifting to learn about a Texas school that raised attendance and test scores by teaching peace.

Once plagued by gang violence and poor attendance, Harris Middle School was the kind of low-performing inner-city institution most parents would just as soon avoid.

But then a few peacemakers arrived on campus, and soon student disputes that might have been settled on the concrete were resolved around a table.

Students who might have stayed home to avoid conflict no longer had to.

Harris now boasts the best attendance rate in the San Antonio School District, according to its principal, Moises Ortiz.

Two years ago, he said, the school ranked 16th out of the district's 17 schools.

Test scores have more than doubled in the past two years, and gang violence is pretty much a thing of the past.

Ortiz attributes the school's dramatic turnaround to the Amigos in Mediation Program, run by the Bexar County Dispute Resolution Center, which teaches students to talk through conflicts in a structured environment.

"We teach peace," Ortiz said. "We sit down at a table and resolve our problems. I know if the students are comfortable, if they feel safe and are happy, they don't have to make excuses to stay home."

The San Antonio Bar Foundation has noted the dramatic turnaround at Harris and given the school its first-ever School Peer Mediation Award, one of four prestigious Peacemaker awards it bestowed Friday night at its annual fund-raising gala.

"They're an outstanding example of a success story," said foundation chair Abigail G. Kampmann.

The Foundation's Peacemaker Awards honor "unsung heroes" who promote nonviolent resolutions to local community conflicts.

A second honoree was Cheryl L. McMullan, a veteran lawyer and former secondary school teacher who began advocating conflict resolution in the late 1980s years before it became fashionable.

Today, as head of the peer mediation program at Providence High School, she helps train selected students to be peer mediators.

"We tell them, you're not judge or jury, you're a facilitator."

McMullan was so excited about getting her silver trophy that she twice had to be reminded to take it, first when she left the podium, and then when she departed her dinner table.

"It's just mind-blowing, quite an honor," she said later, describing herself as the antithesis of the stereotypical "big bucks, me first, competitive lawyer."

Tracy Wolff, a civic and community leader and wife of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, was honored for her many endeavors to improve the lives of Bexar County children.

Frost Bank received the foundation's new Corporate Community Service Award for 2004.

Bank volunteers gave more than 4,500 hours to community service and mentoring in 2002.

Tom Frost, the patriarch of Frost Bank, and his son Don, the bank's president, were on hand to receive the award.

— Lisa Sandberg
School honored for turnaround
San Antonio Express-News


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