Inside the old church sanctuary, the scene Friday was joyous — all hugs, high-fives, and a deep sense of accomplishment over something many people believed 36 young people from Southwest Philadelphia could not do.
Every eighth grade is special to Stephanie Andrewlevich, principal of Mitchell Elementary School, but the Class of 2018 meant something particularly profound to her, she told them.
"Do you know you are an inspiration?" Andrewlevich asked the boys and girls dressed in blue caps and gowns for their first real graduation. "Do you know through your peace you have actually fought? Fought the negative stereotypes that society places on you? Go online. Google 'inner-city teenagers' and see what comes up: violence, fighting, crime, high school dropout rates. But not you. Not your families. Not our school family."
The stated purpose for the ceremony at the Common Place, a worship space at 58th Street and Chester Avenue, a few blocks from Mitchell, was graduation. But the students, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends who gathered were celebrating something more — a year without fights in a school in one of the city's poorest and most violent communities. Something that is practically unheard of.
The Mitchell eighth graders were part of an unusual and polarizing challenge from their principal that attracted national attention: If they made it to graduation without any physical altercations, they would each get $100 and lessons in financial literacy.
The challenge was not sponsored by the district; it was Andrewlevich's idea — and she vowed to pay the $3,600 herself if no donor stepped forward.
After the Inquirer and Daily News detailed the challenge, a legion of contributors did emerge. An anonymous sponsor agreed to cover the $3,600. M&T Bank offered money-managing classes to students and parents and a trip to the bank, where the eighth graders received bank accounts with the cash already deposited.
"In a community plagued with crime and financial insecurity, they learned about peaceful problem-solving and financial literacy," Andrewlevich said. "If you combine that with academics, they're unstoppable."
In the end, 32 of the 36 teenagers made it to the finish line. Four girls got into a fight this spring; they did not earn the money or the medals that Andrewlevich draped around the necks of the rest of the class.
The girls, whose fight was a recess spat that escalated into punches, lost privileges — when their classmates took trips, they had to stay behind — and were directed to talk through how they could have handled things differently. And two funny things happened: Something thawed among the four who couldn't stand each other all year. And instead of ostracizing them, their classmates encouraged them.
There's research to support the idea that students can be spurred to success by financial rewards. In the early days of the challenge, the students talked about the $100 constantly, about buying sneakers or clothes with the money.
But as the year went on, they mentioned it less and less. Being peaceful wasn't something they were doing to earn cash — it was just how they were. After the financial lessons, most said they were going to save it for something big, like college.
Andrewlevich's initial plan was to only award the money if every member of the class refrained from fighting during the span. But midway through the year, she started to wonder: What kind of message would that send?
"Honestly, I realized that wasn't the best life lesson," she said. "I can't expect them to be perfect; that's not the way life works. When they fell, they got back up together."
Every day during morning announcements, she would announce how many days the eighth grade had gone without fighting. The school took notice. Fights plummeted 75 percent schoolwide. Attendance and grades improved.
In prior years, fights at times had been points of pride: When classmates would start throwing fists, others would get out cellphones, egging each other on.
"We flipped the switch this year on where status comes from," said Andrewlevich. "Positive status comes from peace, not from violence."
The students felt that, they said.
Mikel Lindsay said the eighth grade "had our ups and downs, but we did it. And now, the peaceful challenge is our legacy. The other kids have got to keep it up."
Samiya Burney was one of the four students who fought, and that taught her something, she said.
"I learned how to become calmer," said Burney. "And we got over it, we became cool."
Overall, the K-8 school of 520 students has undergone a transformation in academics and climate in the three years since Andrewlevich took over.
She credits a staff she once called "soldiers for this work" and, most of all, the students who brim with promise, despite challenges that overwhelm many adults: poverty, incarcerated parents, housing insecurity, worry about whether the week's groceries will stretch to feed the family.
But Andrewlevich is Mitchell's instructional leader and chief cheerleader, so beloved by her students that they pooled funds to buy her a special necklace to wear for graduation.
People seemed to either think that the challenge was either brilliant or bribery. Andrewlevich hears the criticism, but she's firm that she did the right thing.
"If we keep doing what we were always doing, we're going to get what we always got," she said. "If I would have spent $100 on a pizza party, everyone would have said it was sweet. Our goal was to invest $100 into a bank account that begins a positive financial literacy journey."
Graduate Sharif Ali addressed his classmates solemnly on Friday, sharing some of the lessons they had all learned together this year — about being mature, respectful and responsible, about working hard and moving on from trouble. The Mitchell students, he said, understood what their challenge meant.
"Who would have expected that this group of young ladies and men — myself included — to be such an inspiration for so many?"
That was evident in the surprise they learned about at graduation. A few weeks ago, school staff reached out to supporters who had become familiar with the Mitchell students' work and asked if people might consider donating to sponsor a laptop for each graduate. The money was raised in three days.
On Friday, each student learned they will get a new Chromebook this summer. There was a gasp, then cheers as they heard the news. Some kids put their hands over their mouths, some threw their arms in the air.
Melissa Traber, who teaches in the suburbs, worked with Andrewlevich at Harding Middle School and has been bowled over by the Southwest kids' progress. Traber, her brother, and a friend decided to donate to help the Mitchell students start high school with something they might not have otherwise.
"What they're doing is so amazing," said Traber. "They deserve this advantage."