The YEZ at Banana Kelly: Service as An Alternative to Suspension

By Stephanie Gilman, Program Manager

Welcome to the first Youth Engagement Zone blog post of the new year! We’re excited to be back at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx for the spring semester, and I’d like to discuss in today’s entry some of the less traditional or obvious ways the YEZ model can allow us to have an impact on school culture and environment. Because we are in the school full time, and co-teaching service-learning classes, we are able to get to know students and connect with them on a variety of levels, including academic and more casual interactions.

I first met Willis Cash, a Banana Kelly student, on a service learning trip with the high school’s 9th grade class. After that, I began to recognize him around the school–hanging out with the YEZ at the student store on certain days, for example. I had a few casual conversations with him and made it clear that he was always free to interact with us in his free time. One day, I noticed that Willis was looking particularly upset, and I asked him what was wrong. He told me that he’d had an incident with another student and was going to be suspended as a result.

I knew that Cash (he sometimes goes by his last name) was a good kid and felt that suspension would do more harm that good, and would definitely not serve him. I talked to the school’s dean and devised a second option for Cash: He could be suspended, or do community service with us on Saturday. In other circumstances, this would be harder to advocate for, but since Willis had no prior incidents, the dean agreed.

“I took the community service,” Cash says now. “It turned about to be a great thing to do.”

Cash’s first service project would prove transformative. We went to a local soup kitchen in the Bronx, and Cash helped us serve food. “I got a smile on my face doing it,” Cash later remarked. “I see that the food makes people happy, and that makes me happy. I like how I can give back to the community, to people who don’t have access to food.”

Cash only had to attend a single service project to avoid suspension, but he has attended every Banana Kelly Saturday service project since that incident. What started as a punishment has provided Cash with a validating activity that allow him to meaningfully interact with both his school and his community. And none of this would have happened had Cash been suspended. There is an astonishing amount of research that highlights the negative academic, social, and health effects of harsh school disciplinary practices, and the increased drop out rates of suspended and expelled students. We didn’t want Cash, or any other student for that matter, to go down that path. We hope that by providing an alternative, fewer students will be suspended at Banana Kelly High School.