How to Teach Peace

By Phoebe Larson

St. Paul’s Community of Peace Academy—and the Carls who work there—put peace, love, and understanding at the forefront of education

Robert White ’85
Robert White ’85

Etched into the small, smooth stone is the word perseverance.

Robert White ’85, principal for kindergarten through eighth grade at Community of Peace Academy on St. Paul’s east side, gave the stone to a student who was sent to his office after a classroom outburst. Getting sent to the principal’s office is different here. It doesn’t elicit the ominous “You’re in trouble” singsong from the other kids, and result in a stern lecture or punishment. Instead, it sparks a conversation between equals (despite the obvious age and height difference) to unpack the anxiety that hides within the outburst and to determine what positive changes a child can make to get back on track. Students usually depart with renewed belief in their ability to overcome challenges—to persevere.

“Growing up is hard,” says White, who has worked at the school since 1998. “And most of our students are additionally affected by poverty and hunger. We strive to provide them with an environment in which they feel safe and can succeed.”

Community of Peace Academy (CPA) was established as a charter school in 1995 with the mission of “creating a peaceful environment in which each person is treated with unconditional positive regard and acceptance.” Approximately 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals, and 70 percent speak home languages other than English. The student body is diverse: 55 percent are Hmong, 21 percent Hispanic, 17 percent African American, and 12 percent European American.

Students must apply for admittance to CPA via a lottery, which is held each spring and determines new placements for the following school year. Most students live in the surrounding neighborhood, an area where, 2010 census data show, 50 percent of residents had an income below the poverty level compared to 11 percent statewide.

According to St. Paul city crime maps, the neighborhoods surrounding CPA are among the highest for domestic dispute calls, robberies, use of weapons, and other crimes. Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis reported that CPA’s zip code, 55130, has one of the state’s highest rates of negative equity, which, in turn, produces a high rate of home foreclosures. White thinks the recession directly correlates to an increase in behavioral problems among CPA’s younger students, as tensions rise at home. Under such conditions, the school’s graduation rate takes on greater significance, as it is consistently at or near 100 percent with 90 percent of graduates accepted into postsecondary institutions each year.

Anna Matykowski ’06
Anna Matykowski ’06

In addition to White, three Carleton alumni currently teach at CPA: Claire Herman ’08, high school English; Anna Matykowski ’06, seventh- and eighth-grade language arts; and Andrew Tolan ’06, special education. The school began with 160 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and now serves more than 800 students from pre-K through high school. CPA teaches the same core content areas required of all St. Paul public schools, but they are taught through the lens of the PeaceBuilders curriculum. A national violence-prevention program, PeaceBuilders reduces aggression and fosters a productive learning environment through the practice of six key principles: praise people, give up put-downs, seek wise people, notice hurts, right wrongs, and help others. At the elementary and middle school levels, this manifests in games, worksheets, and rewards that encourage kindness, sharing, and listening. At the high school level, the curriculum delves into ethics and world religion, history, and literature.

“Classroom discussions at the high school level are fascinating,” says Herman, who is in her second year teaching at CPA. “I see students developing their identities around these principles and thinking about global issues—how they can use CPA’s mission and vision to impact the world on a larger scale.”

The emphasis on peace and nonviolence makes a notable difference. “When you eliminate the common stressors associated with school (Will I fit in? Will my teacher be mean? Will I have to watch my back?), not to mention the additional strains faced by our students in particular, they can focus on learning,” says White. “It unmasks their potential.”  

The student who received White’s perseverance stone began the year with a lot of anxiety, according to the CPA staff. He was resistant to teachers and didn’t get along with his peers. But rather than deem him a hopeless case and cast him aside, the adults at CPA took an even greater interest in him and made sure he learned the coping skills he needed to succeed. At the beginning of the year, his reading test scores were among the lowest in his class. By the end of the year, he had the highest scores. His abilities had been hidden behind the stress.

Claire Herman ’08
Claire Herman ’08

“At CPA we focus on the whole student—mind, body, and will,” says Herman. “The two schools I taught at prior to CPA were solely concentrated on academics, yet I still had students who would come to school hungry or following a fight with a family member. Academics aren’t successful under that strain. Here we have the time and resources to talk about those other pieces: Why it’s important to get enough sleep in high school and what to do if you’re in a fight with your parents—how to resolve it; why you should resolve it.”

On Herman’s blackboard she has written a quote from The Name of the Wind, a fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss: “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

At CPA, teachers work hard to ensure that every student’s story demonstrates confidence, compassion, and empowerment, despite whatever negative fodder they may receive outside school walls. “It’s a bottom-up approach,” says Matykowski, who is in her fifth year at CPA. “Everyone—students, teachers, administrators, and the students’ mentors—works together to solve issues. The programs we use provide the entire school with common language and expectations so students have consistency in all classrooms and with most interactions.”

Because their world outside of CPA can, at times, be stressful, consistency is key. Each day begins with “Peace Circle,” during which students greet one another, share news or concerns, and play a game. “It provides a soft landing into school,” says Matykowski. “So no matter what may have happened before walking into my classroom, they know what to expect at school. It helps students start off the day on the right track and builds community in the classroom.”

Andrew Tolan ’06
Andrew Tolan ’06

Tolan, who is in his second year teaching at CPA, works with students who have conditions such as attention deficit disorder and autism. Having worked in other school districts in Minneapolis and St. Paul, he knows that the relationship teachers have with special education students can vary. “Special education students are not always well integrated into the classroom, but I find CPA teachers to be especially accommodating,” he says. “It’s not just something they put up with to fulfill the federal regulations, it’s part of our school values. Students with disabilities are seen as having their own contributions to make in the classroom. Both the teachers and the other students are used to working with or around learning challenges.”

Students seem to thrive under CPA’s nontraditional approach. Herman marvels at the benevolence of her high school students, who are at the age when many teens challenge authority and seemingly invite conflict. “The students are so kind to one another here,” she says. “They are notably caring and conscientious. If someone seems down, they reach out. And they are incredibly warm and welcoming to new students and to the younger kids.”

“Every morning, the kids come in, exchange greetings, and shake hands. It’s the CPA norm,” says Matykowski. She points out that the seventh grade can be a little rocky because a third class is added that year to accommodate the volume of incoming students. “While some new students jump right on board with our expectations, other new students are resistant to the attitudes and behaviors we’re trying to teach,” she says. “These students think it’s silly or not cool, and they often challenge their teachers and classmates. But those transition students are ultimately one of the greatest rewards of teaching at CPA, because by the end of the year most of them begin making better choices. You can see their change and growth.”

Teachers and administrators at CPA set high expectations for behavior, as well as for academics. “Students perceive those high expectations as a compliment,” says Deborah Appleman, Carleton’s Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies. “When a teacher says, ‘I think you can do this,’ the students hear that they are smart, capable, and valued.” Appleman oversees Carleton’s teacher licensure program (Matykowski received her license through it), and every fall she invites Matykowksi and other alumni who teach in the Twin Cities to speak to Carleton students about teaching as a career.

The impact of setting high expectations can be life changing. “One of my students didn’t like to read,” says Herman. “He had the skills, but he lacked confidence. So I set out to help him change his view of himself. I encouraged his abilities and talked to him about pursuing college. By the end of the year, he had been accepted to College Possible [a program founded by Carleton alumnus Jim McCorkell ’90 that provides resources for low-income students to pursue postsecondary education]. And one day last spring, he stopped in and asked me if he could borrow a book to read over the summer. That was huge.” 

Frank Sentwali
Frank Sentwali with CPA students

CPA recently received two important grants that will aid with literacy efforts and behavioral issues in the elementary school. A $500,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation allowed CPA to adopt a pre-K through third grade literacy curriculum that was developed at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute. A $50,000 grant from the F. R. Bigelow and St. Paul Foundations will implement a Wilder Foundation program that assists African American children in kindergarten through eighth grade who struggle with mental illness. “An African American social worker will join the staff specifically to support those students and their families and provide them with essential resources,” says White.

CPA’s mission states that parents are the first educators of their children, so staff members are committed to keeping parents engaged with the school. In addition to hosting two parent-teacher conferences per year, teachers visit every member of their homeroom class each fall. “It provides a bridge between the family and the school,” says White. “Following the visits, teachers have a better picture of what’s going on at home so they can teach more effectively, and parents may feel more comfortable reaching out to a teacher if there’s a crisis at home.”

At a school-wide poetry reading last spring, students shared a glimpse into the issues they face beyond CPA. The reading was the culmination of a weeklong residency led by spoken-word artist Frank Sentwali of the Minnesota-based nonprofit COMPAS, which employs professional artists to work with students, teachers, patients, and the elderly to express their creativity and emotion through the arts.

Appleman helped CPA obtain the funding for the residency and, in return, arranged for Carleton students in her “Methods of Teaching English” class to observe how poetry can bridge students’ personal and academic lives.

whiteboard“Adolescent agony is experienced by all students, regardless of where they go to school,” says Appleman. “Kids everywhere face issues surrounding money, family, and mental illness. They also think about their identities: Who am I? Who is my family? Am I going to make it in life? Through poetry, kids can explore these questions and also hone skills in communication, language, reading, and writing.”

While some CPA students wrote poems about what they see every day in their neighborhood—drugs, gangs, or domestic violence—others wrote about universal adolescent struggles such as stress and body image. A fifth grader brought some audience members to tears when he read his poem about his parents’ divorce and his feelings of abandonment, a topic relatable to kids everywhere.

It’s unclear whether the student who received the perseverance stone last year kept it or decided to share it with another classmate who needed the reminder. Objects can be given away, lost, or discarded. Fortunately, perseverance, peace, and understanding are not simply etched in stone at CPA. They are ingrained in this community and in all those who leave its confines and set forth into the world. 


  • December 13 2013 at 11:34 am
    MJ. McGovern

    I applaud what you and your peers are doing to further the enlightenment of all students and to help them grow both inwardly and stretching to the neighborhood and the community they will meet in the future.

    Best wishes,

    MJ McGovern

  • December 27 2013 at 10:41 pm
    Queen E.
    Having spent a period of time in St. Paul, and a brief time with the school, I am happy to see this school there. I am highly favorable of the mentoring of the values that perpetuate a desire to continue to learn beyond the frame.

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