May 9, 2018 9:45 am

These Philly students are using paper cranes to fight the school-to-prison pipeline

A team from John Bartram High School won the Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia and are heading to Colorado next month to present their artistic solution to keep youth in school.

The Bartram High team.

(Photo by Daniel Bayer)

Correction: The Aspen Institute is an education policy org, not a think tank. (5/9, 3:03 p.m.)
According to Japanese folklore, folding 1,000 cranes grants a wish for prosperity. One group of Philly high school students has passed that mark and wished for the end of the school-to-prison pipeline — and they’re already helping that wish come true themselves.

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to harsh policies leading to the incarceration of young students — disproportionately minority, vulnerable, and special needs children. Nationally, Black students made up 31 percent of students arrested or referred to law enforcement during the 2014-2015 school year despite representing only 15 percent of enrolled students.

In 2016-2017, Philadelphia County public schools reported that 2,655 out of 5,644 disciplinary incidents involved law enforcement and led to 337 arrests, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools. Such arrests have been decreasing since the introduction of the Philadelphia School Police Diversion Program, but there is still more work to be done.

“We want to eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Jasaan Golden, a student at John Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia. “I don’t want kids to be stereotyped based on what’s going on in their lives. Everybody deserves a chance.”

(Photo via

Golden and fellow Bartram students Abubakarr Bangura, Augustus Harris, Amber Edwards, Sybria Deveaux, Simon Moore and Mikiyah Burgess, along with educator-coaches Erin Stewart and Shannon Brophy, won first place at this year’s Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia.

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The April event was part of an annual competition hosted by the education policy org The Aspen Institute. The Bartram students beat out 15 other local high schools’ teams that each presented their ideas for a unique solution to some societal problem, such as poverty, climate change or bullying, as proposed by local thought leaders. The winning teams from Philly and Dallas will fly to Aspen, Colo., this June to present their ideas.

The Bartram students’ team, which they named Give Us Our Crowns, addressed Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden’s challenge to “use art to raise awareness about the school-to-prison pipeline in your community and promote restorative justice and education over incarceration.” They chose folding paper cranes as their art form, which they consider a restorative and gratifying practice to create beautiful and symbolic displays.

“The project is important because it’s not just words on paper. It’s playing out on the ground,” said Zachary Epps, the Aspen Challenge’s program manager who previously worked for the School District of Philadelphia. “They have the agency to take ownership and give their solution an identity.”

In developing their project, the team emphasized the lived experience and diverse perspectives on the issue. Though teammate Edwards said she was prepared for those caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline to decline describing their experiences, the team found those interviewees were actually “very willing to talk and happy that they were being listened to. They wanted to get involved in what we were doing.”

(Photo via

Give Us Our Crowns addresses the need for immediate restorative justice and long-term change in perception and policy. They worked with teachers to host restorative crane-folding sessions for at-risk students.

School and local district police also joined in to start bridging the gaps in understanding that contribute to stigmatization of students. Cranes were assembled into displays in Southwest Philadelphia schools, community centers and businesses, referring viewers to learn more on the team’s website and Instagram.

The team said they believe their efforts are leading to more awareness and conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline. They hope that seeing students succeed in positive, restorative situations will inspire school administrators and community partners to seek more solutions for keeping youth out of jail.

The team is also working to establish scholarships for Bartram seniors who were or are part of the criminal justice system, implement after-school mentoring programs with middle and elementary schools, and drive more interventions.

Like other youth-run advocacy groups for education reform, Give Us Our Crowns has keen insight into what students need — and they have identified a tactile, beautiful experience that speaks to the core of humanity.

“We see that making the cranes, as a diversion, releases pain and stress, and makes you feel like a human again,” said teammate Harris.


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