A youth anti-violence program in Pittsburgh Public Schools has received more than $2 million in state funding to expand.
The Safe Passages program, operated by Pittsburgh-based Operation Better Block, was launched as a pilot at Perry Traditional Academy in the city’s North Side. The grant money from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will allow the district to expand the program to other schools.
The program brings adult community leaders into schools to mentor students, look for problematic behaviors and mediate potential conflicts, city officials said. It also offers stipends to student ambassadors who take on leadership roles in the program.
Assistant Public Safety Director David Jones said the pilot at Perry showed the effort was worth expanding to other schools.
“There was a reduction in fights. There was a reduction of students looting in the hallways, which is always a big problem,” he said. “It was just more conducive for people to learn.”
Attendance roughly doubled at Perry since the start of the program, Chief Operating and Administrative Officer Lisa Frank said.
“The real outcome of the program is that unwinding of violence and setting young people person by person on a (better) path,” she said. “All of the measures show we’ve got people headed in a better direction.”
She said up to 80 Pittsburgh Public Schools students could become paid ambassadors through the program, which teaches them to become “peacekeepers.”
The grant, which lasts two years, would allow the initiative to hire additional full-time adult staff as well as student ambassadors.
The program is expected to remain at Perry and expand to Carrick High School, Westinghouse High School, Allderdice High School and John Morrow Elementary School, according to a budget attached to the legislation.
Legislation before City Council would authorize the city to enter into a partnership with the school district and Operation Better Block to use the grant funds for the program’s expansion.
Frank said officials are “more or less on track” to launch the expanded initiative at the start of the next academic year.
Jones said officials are working with school principals and counselors to determine which students would be good candidates to be ambassadors and to identify the specific needs at each building.
Councilman Anthony Coghill, D-Beechview, said he felt it was important for the city and school district to work together to reduce violence, particularly among young people.
Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, D-Squirrel Hill, said she was supportive of efforts to ensure that school is a “safe place” and that children can find trusted adults in their schools.
In-school efforts alone can’t solve the youth violence problems the city has experienced, particularly during the summer months, said Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, D-West End.
She pushed for family resource centers to open soon and offer expanded hours and services for youth and families to find resources and safe spaces throughout the city. She has called for the city to open at least one such center in each area of the city.
“I want to make sure the kids do have some place safe. I’m just not going to allow them to go through a summer with nothing again,” she said.
Frank said the administration anticipates those efforts will launch “very, very soon,” likely beginning at Phillips Recreation Center in Carrick. She said efforts also are underway to open such a center at Ammon Recreation Center in the Hill District.
City Council gave preliminary approval last week to expanding the Safe Passages program. Council is expected to take a final vote this week.
Julia Felton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Julia by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .