NEWARK-With rising gang violence plaguing their city, students and administrators of Saint Rose of Lima School are fighting back.
As the first private school in the state to offer the federal Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program curriculum, the parish school on Orange Street is combating the recruitment of gang members at a younger age.
GREAT is a school-based, law enforcement officer-instructed classroom curriculum. With prevention as its primary objective, the program is intended to resist youth violence and gang membership. Offered to the third, fourth and sixth grade students, it is taught by Officer Raymond Vonderheide, senior parole officer in the street gang unit of the New Jersey State Parole Board.
The curriculum was brought to the attention of Candida Esposito, director of staff development at Saint Rose of Lima School, by Catholic Charities. "Catholic Charities visited with Principal Arthur L. Wilson, the State Parole Board and me and asked if we were interested in the program. The more education we give to these children to challenge gang violence, the better," Esposito explained.
Most of the children who attend the school live in Newark and are constantly exposed to gangs. "The students don't need me to tell them about gangs-it is in their environment. The gang problem is growing and I don't want to see that," Vonderheide said. The 12-week program hardly mentions the word "gang;" instead students are taught about peer pressure and making positive choices.
"The students gain confidence, which is the building block to making the right decisions. We perform skits and have activities that encourage communication and address peer-pressure and bullying," Vonderheide explained.
Students responded positively to the program and "Officer Ray" especially. With long blonde hair and a relaxed demeanor, Vonderheide does not fit the profile of a typical police officer for the students. "I look a little different from the police officers they are used to seeing. When I tell them that in my spare time, I like to play my guitar, surf and snowboard, they respond to that," he recalled.
Although Vonderheide has been a police academy instructor and involved with fighting gang violence for 11 years, he is still nervous when teaching the youngsters. "The first time I taught the GREAT curriculum was over a year ago and I was terrified. I still feel nervous every time I first start a class. It takes about a week for the students to warm up to me. Sometimes the kids will come and talk to me about their problems and I am very flattered; it tugs at the heart-strings."
The rise of gang violence is due in part to its prevalence in the media, Vonderheide suggested. "In the past, it was believed that kids that joined gangs were just poor, inner-city children who came from broken homes. Today, people want to be in gangs because they are cool. Gangsters are on television doing commercials. It is tough to compete with that image. Kids see gang members as successful and they don't realize that hundreds of others have died trying to achieve that success."
Children have difficulty separating fact from fiction in terms of what gangs really are. "I have been asked if I have been on "Cops," if I have ever been run over by a car, and if I ever shot someone. The kids are used to what they see in movies. I think films have regressed because the violence looks so real that you cannot tell it is fictional. I tell the students the truth," Vonderheide said.
One of the main goals of GREATis to let students know that there are other options of what to do in the future. "I ask all the children what they want to be when they grow up. There is a whole world out there that the kids should know about. One girl said she wanted to e a research chemist. That really impressed me because she put a lot of thought into it. She believes that she can do it, which is half the battle."
As principal of Saint Rose of Lima School for almost 34 years, Wilson has seen how his students are affected by gangs outside the school walls. "When children leave this school and go to a public high school, they should know how to deal with gangs. Children are influenced by a culture that glorifies gang association. The GREAT program discourages that. Especially in an urban setting, the kids just want to belong."
Wilson considers the program successful and would like to continue with it next year. "The children think the program is terrific and are enthused with Officer Vonderheide. There is no way to truly measure the success of GREAT until the sixth graders are in eighth grade and ready to graduate. I definitely endorse this program."
Originally intended just for sixth grade, the third and fourth grade classes were added to the curriculum. Wilson argued that gangs are recruiting younger and younger members and the GREAT program is an important tool to combat it. "It is never too young to start teaching children about gangs. At the third-grade level, the boys especially begin forming attitudes and assert themselves. The children want to do things that they see on television and model their behavior on what they see in the streets."
There has been a shift in familial structure and the value system of the students according to Wilson. "In urban areas, many of the students are being raised by their grandmothers that are one generation removed from the problems facing the children. Alot of parents are losing their children to the streets. We are combating a lot of forces. Saint Rose of Lima is not a violent school, but the children live in a culture outside of school where they see violence everyday."
Together with the school's drug and sex education programs, GREAT is important to the allaround education and well-being of the students. "This program is a starting point and it is centering our character education program," Wilson said. "It enhances our curriculum and shows children the positive options instead of the negative options."