This is What Happens When a Community Feels Accountable for the Education of its Young People

Voices from the Field | Learner Voices   22 January 2019
By Paul Haluszczak, Education Reimagined


I like helping people. I want to be the change I want to see in the world. It may sound corny, but it’s the truth. If I can help just one person, that’s enough for me.

Ryan Rivera
El Centro de Estudiantes Alumnus

In 2013, the Philadelphia Public School District shut down 23 schools. That same year, 18-year-old Ryan Rivera found himself sitting in the back of a police car, “distraught and defeated”—an unfortunate representative of the holes the local district and community left unfilled. The City of Brotherly Love was hurting, and Rivera was at the center of its pain.

Fast forward to October 2018. On a bright stage in Atlanta, GA, the Big Picture Learning network was handing out its Alumni Action Awards. Matthew Prochnow, School Coach for Big Picture Philadelphia, was on stage describing the next recipient as someone who is a “hard worker, has an abundance of personality, and an unusual degree of tenacity.”  Now 23, Rivera was in attendance, excitedly awaiting his moment to shine.

Although Philadelphia’s education system continued reeling during that five-year span, Rivera’s life trajectory had taken a sudden turn in the opposite direction. What happened? How did an 18-year-old dropout suddenly find himself on stage at a national conference receiving an alumni award? The operative word here? “Alumni.”

Each chapter of Rivera’s story makes it nearly impossible to choose what to include and what to leave for your imagination. Glazing over it all in a single phrase, “Ryan’s journey could have been another dead end tale of a kid from the hood.” But, it wasn’t. It isn’t. Instead, Ryan’s journey was an action-filled drama of unlikely friendships and even more unlikely professional opportunities.

Finding Comfort in the One Constant

At 15 years old, Rivera found opportunity at El Centro de Estudiantes—a learner-centered environment from Big Picture Philadelphia that serves youth ages 15 to 21. Shortly after enrolling, Rivera was invited to attend a Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Contact (PADMC) Forum—a full-day event that has been bringing together urban youth and police officers to have candid conversations since 2005. The Forums are hosted many times a year throughout Philadelphia—reaching youth in their respective neighborhoods.

The Forums start off simply enough. The emcee poses a basic question to the learners in attendance, such as, “How do you perceive police officers in your community?” Although the Forum always starts the same, the reflections provided are as unique as the young people who are gathered together.

By the time lunch hits, the room has made a remarkable shift from one of tension and mistrust to one of greater understanding and respect. This is a two-way transformation. The officers gain insights about how they are perceived in the communities they serve. And, the young learners are able to connect with the police procedures that on the surface may appear unjustified. The two groups are able to connect so well that it’s commonplace to see officers exchanging phone numbers with the young learners.

Rivera only needed to experience the Forum one time to be hooked. Although he would drop-out and re-enroll at El Centro multiple times during the next two-and-a-half years, he attended as many Forums as he could, connecting with countless officers and PADMC leaders. The Forums were his one constant. But, when he dropped out of El Centro for the third time—a few months before his 18th birthday—he stopped involving himself with PADMC and the Forums. His constant was gone.

[from left to right, front to back] Ryan Rivera, Carl Stubbs, Drew Rice, and Tao Graves eat lunch at a local restaurant.

Out of school and out of work, Rivera was desperate to earn a little extra income for his household—a household that saw his step-father on parole and his mother diagnosed with breast cancer. Peddling drugs, Rivera was caught red-handed.

While Rivera reflected on his choices in the back of that unmarked police car, Carl Stubbs, the arresting officer, noticed Rivera was “upset in a way [he] wasn’t used to seeing.” Rivera wasn’t angry at officer Stubbs. Rather, he was noticeably frustrated with himself. He was sitting in the back of this police car saying to himself, “you’re better than this.”

Stubbs saw a unique opportunity. Throughout his 23-year career, he’s had numerous conversations with youth he’s taken into the police station. Although he rarely seems to get through to them, he never stops trying to find that moment where he can make a measurable impact. With Rivera, the opportunity never seemed so promising.

Stubbs laid things out plainly, “You have to get back in school. There’s more to life than what you’re doing. In life, there are speed bumps. That’s what you’re dealing with right now, speed bumps. If you keep running over them though, those speed bumps are going to turn into ditches.”

Choosing Accountability Over Blaming Others

Rivera heard the message loud and clear. A year later, as Rivera’s court case was still being worked out, the two crossed paths again at the courthouse. Stubbs didn’t immediately recognize Rivera, but Rivera was jubilant when he saw Stubbs. He talked about the various jobs he had taken up since their encounter. Rivera told Stubbs, “I took everything you said that night to heart. I knew I was better than that and now I’m back in school.”

Rivera was ready to re-engage with fervor. And, he immediately found his way back to the Forums. However, rather than simply attending, he wanted to organize a Forum himself—this time, inside El Centro. He knew the impact it could make on his peers.

Rivera never looked back. Today, he is a Board Member of PADMC, where former Board Member, Rhonda McKitten, describes Rivera as “someone whose energy and commitment to improving relationships between officers and youth is contagious.” That seems to be a common reflection about Rivera, and having spoken to him myself, I would add that Rivera is also committed to improving relationships within his community writ large. As of this writing, he’s exploring how to put on an outdoor charity basketball tournament because he wants to serve even more people.

A natural connector, Rivera used every new Forum he designed to bring in new officers who most closely represented the young learners at each respective learning environment. The kids in Kensington had a different experience from the kids in Southwest Philadelphia who had a different experience from the kids in Roxborough. Rivera knew it was important to fill each Forum with officers who looked like and could connect to the experiences of the young people in each neighborhood.

Won’t Take“No” for an Answer

Ryan took every encounter with a Philadelphia police officer as an opportunity for enrollment. If he happened to get pulled over and felt the officer was handling himself or herself in a professional manner, he would invite them on the spot to participate in the next Forum. Where most of us would be frustrated about the likelihood of receiving a speeding ticket, Rivera would be sitting in his car gearing up for an exciting conversation.

“The officers I invite to participate in the forums today are people I’ve spoken with on multiple occasions, had lunch with, been on ride-alongs with, and hang out with in my personal time. They’re my friends.”

Rivera’s enthusiasm carried over into his senior year where he was required to take an internship in order to graduate. Ironically, Rivera had wanted to be a police officer ever since he was a young child. “I saw them as respected members in the community who were actually doing something—trying to help,” Rivera reflected. “They were in the action. I like helping people. I want to be the change I want to see in the world. It may sound corny, but it’s the truth. If I can help just one person, that’s enough for me. I feel like I can do that as a police officer.”

With this burning desire to become a police officer, Rivera’s first instinct was to seek out an internship at the police station. Given his history and unsuccessful attempts by previous El Centro learners, the police internship was a no-go.

Ryan Rivera goes over a document with Judge Rayford Means

Next on Rivera’s list was the courthouse. When his stepfather was on parole, Rivera heard about the judge overseeing his stepfather’s case. Judge Rayford Means had a reputation for conducting business differently—in the best of ways. Police officers will attend court hearings in Judge Means’ courtroom to simply observe the judge work his magic; learn from the way he communicates with defendants—people who the officers are interacting with on a daily basis.

Rivera’s mentors at El Centro were hesitant yet supportive of his desire to intern at the courthouse. The police station and courthouse were one in the same in their eyes, so they weren’t confident his request would be well-received. However, Rivera’s charisma was going to win the day.

Rivera positioned himself in Judge Means’ courtroom, looking for an opportunity—a break in the action—to make his request. As fate would have it, that opportunity would arrive smack dab in the middle of the action itself. As lunch time approached, Judge Means, row by row, requested everyone in attendance to stand up and explain why they were there.

Nearly everyone was a defendant for one case or another. When it came to Rivera, he confidently stood up and kept it short and sweet, “My name is Ryan Rivera, and I came from El Centro de Estudiantes today. I’m a senior there and as such, I have to have an internship in order to graduate. I would love to intern for you.”

Immediately receptive, Judge Means called for his clerk to speak with Rivera outside the courtroom to explore the possibility further. It was Thursday. On the following Tuesday, Rivera walked into the courthouse for the first day of his internship.

Who’s the Ryan Rivera in Your Community?

That was over two years ago. Today, Rivera is an El Centro graduate and is employed as a Personal Assistant to Judge Means. He remains committed to becoming a police officer one day, but for now, he loves his work—for the judge and for the Forum.

At first glance, Rivera’s story seems to be remarkable—unreplicable even. Although the details are unlikely to be repeated, the reason Rivera was able to turn his life around had to do with one subtle, yet powerful, reality. Rivera came in contact with a small number of individuals who saw themselves as personally accountable for the growth and development of youth in their community.

From the leaders at El Centro de Estudiantes and PADMC to Officer Stubs and Judge Means to every police officer who was willing to participate at the Forums, their desire to serve transformed Rivera’s life from one that was on a path to prison to one that will likely see Rivera wearing a badge himself one day.

Rivera’s story is unique, yet relatable. And, it can be a similar story for a young learner in your community. When a community is willing to put learners at the center, the opportunity to serve every learner based on their individual needs and see them embark on fulfilling life journeys is more than possible, it’s highly probable.

The only question is how will your community take ownership and reimagine how young people are served every day? What support are you personally going to provide, so the next time a young learner hits a speed bump, he doesn’t find himself driving into a ditch?

Update [Jan. 29, 2019, 20:47]: The original article mistakenly claimed 37 Philadelphia Public Schools were closed down in 2013. That was the original proposal at the end of 2012, and 23 schools were officially voted to be closed on March 8th, 2013.

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