Schools In Philly’s “Opioid Zone” Help Kids Process Grim Reality Of Addiction

By Victoria Kim 10/31/19

The goal is to teach students in the notorious area coping techniques so their focus can return to school. 

kids doing yoga on Philly's opioid zone
ID 74510023 © Wavebreakmedia Ltd |

Educators in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood play a larger role than they signed up for—they provide support to kids exposed to the grim reality of drug abuse daily, in a neighborhood notorious for its visible drug problem.

Charlotte Maddox, principal of Lewis Elkin Elementary School, showed WHYY reporter, Joel Wolfram, images of what the school has to deal with on a daily basis.

“Used syringes in a jar. A man sprawled unconscious on the playground. The shattered window of a teacher’s car, which had been hit by a stray bullet,” Wolfram observed.

Discussing Their Surroundings

At the beginning of each day, students are encouraged to share what’s bothering them. By getting it off their chest, the goal is to get them back to focusing on school and processing whatever was on their mind.

“They’re kind of focused on that in their minds. So when it comes time to read, it’s hard for them to look at the words on the page and read because they’re more worried about what happened at home last night, what happened outside their house, what happened on the way to school that morning,” said Chelsea Trainor, a third-grade teacher at Elkin.

Another school in Kensington, Memphis Street Academy, teaches kids in grades 5-8 coping techniques like deep breathing and yoga.

Processing Trauma 

Wolfram illustrates the horrors that these kids come face-to-face with every day—“family members dying of overdoses, screams outside at night that made it impossible to sleep, drug dealers soliciting them on the street, and accidentally stumbling into someone who was injecting drugs in public.”

By acknowledging what they are going through, the goal is to help process the trauma as it’s happening, so it doesn’t worsen with age. “At the root of all of that is not knowing how to cope with emotions and having to deal with pretty big emotions at a pretty young age,” said Brittany Buchanan, a fifth-grade counselor at the Academy.

“With all of this that’s happening on the outside of the building, we need to be beacons of hope on the inside of the building,” said Maddox.

Philadelphia is the expected site of the nation’s first overdose prevention centers, after a recent victory in court by Safehouse, the local organization that proposed the sites.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr