It's funny where the most interesting and engaging conversations can happen. At the gym last week, I had a few random, but passionate conversations with other members of the educational (and martial arts!) community about youth experiencing trauma and how it impacts their ability to participate in school, learn effectively, and handle their emotions.
Trauma is something I wish I had learned about when I became a teacher over ten years ago. Like many new teachers, I struggled with classroom management. It is probably not surprising to learn that as a 5'2", 22 year-old woman, I did not have a natural authoritative presence. However, there were many other reasons for the challenges I faced -- ineffective and harmful administrators, a lack of shared expectations among our middle school team, and my own battle with anxiety. These all contributed to what often felt like turmoil in my classroom. While I always empathized with the challenges my students faced in their own lives, I never fully understood the ramifications of the trauma and hardship they experienced -- nor did I know where to connect them or their families for additional support.
I was lucky because the school had a wonderful social worker and part-time psychologist to whom I could refer students. They also served as great supports and sources of advice and knowledge for me as a new educator. Yet, there was little capacity and no infrastructure at the school for understanding and responding to trauma. I remember being told that students were experiencing homelessness, hearing stories about families who were involved in gangs, and seeing that students were extremely impoverished, but I had no tools to process these situations or fully support my students. I felt anguish about the situations they were experiencing, but I know I did not always respond effectively.
Years later, after working in a community school and supporting many others, I know what more effective and comprehensive supports can look like. I have seen the benefits of wraparound services for students and families, including a full mental health team; meaningful enrichment and engagement opportunities for students and adults; connections to resources for basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, and adult education; efforts to track and review data on engagement, attendance, and supports provided; and most importantly, a loving and affirming approach to working with students and families with the greatest needs. Community schools -- schools that become a hub of the surrounding community and provide these wraparound services for students, families, and community members -- are well-supported by research. This model has been shown to be beneficial in reducing chronic absenteeism, improving school climate, increasing student achievement, and more. One of the findings from a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report states that:
"The evidence base provides a strong warrant for using community schools to meet the needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools and to help close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities."
So when my friend at the gym, a high school guidance counselor, told me that his school effectively did not have any mental health clinicians available to students, I was taken aback. I talk to him frequently about his school and the amazing ways in which he supports his students, so I was shocked to learn that this large high school was so under-resourced in this area. The school seems to be on its way toward providing wraparound services, with a brand new food pantry and the dedication of counselors like my friend. Yet this conversation made me realize that the services I took for granted in Baltimore City schools -- which were still often insufficient to meet the high level of need -- did not exist everywhere.
This was a critical and humbling realization. Of course, if we could make students' barriers disappear -- or at least provide them with the resources that they need to overcome these barriers and thrive -- we would. But in the absence of a magic wand, what can we do? From my lens, this is where needs assessments and data tracking can play a huge role. Imagine if we collected stories from students, families, and staff about the challenges faced by the school community, each stakeholder group's perceived needs, and their recommendations for meeting those needs. Now think about if we used factual data about the community and student population to support those stories. What we would get is an intensely compelling, collective narrative about what this community needs and how its members feel those needs could be met.
Could a needs assessment or set of data instantly bring on a full slate of mental health workers at this school? Of course not. But when we tell our story effectively, people (read: funders, decision-makers, influencers) listen. And when people start listening, we can inspire them to make change.
As a community school coordinator in Baltimore City, it was a primary responsibility to track attendance and facilitate interventions for students with troubling numbers of absences. Often, figuring out why students were missing school was like solving a puzzle. Had we not been religiously tracking data to see the patterns in each student's attendance record, some of their periods of absenteeism and related needs would have gone unnoticed in our school's daily attendance statistics.
Some cases were easy to understand, even if they were hard to stomach... a child's relative was gunned down in the neighborhood and the family wanted to be together ... a parent's car broke down, so they couldn't get their son to school ... a family was evicted and was staying with relatives across town ... For many of those cases, we could support the families by arranging transportation or referring them to local service providers. Usually, the children ended up back in school soon after.
Others seemingly had no explanation for why their children were missing so many days of school. Figuring out the story behind one particular little girl became my mission. She missed an unthinkable 68 days in Pre-Kindergarten, and her mom was not very easy to get a hold of. By halfway through Kindergarten, when she already exceeded the criteria for chronic absence, I waited for her mom every day at dismissal. When I finally got to sit down with her, our conversation would be a turning point for my approach to attendance and family engagement.
What was so monumental? I gave her mom a simple compliment, and that turned things around. I told her that her daughter was always beautifully dressed and that her hair was always adorable, so I knew how much she cared for her daughter. She was shocked that I would compliment her parenting. She began to cry and told me about her current situation. We were able to arrange some supports for them to help get her super sweet girl to school.
Things weren't always smooth sailing for them after that, and her mom was still hard to reach. But this little girl went from missing over one-third of her Pre-K year to missing fewer than 10 days by the first half of 1st grade.
To me, she is a true success story for genuine, asset-based approaches to family engagement. Instead of focusing on what parents aren't doing, a simple comment about the great things they are doing can be very powerful. And of course, the conversation wouldn't have even been possible without the data pointing us in the right direction.
STRUCTURED SOLUTIONS wants to help your school have its own success stories. For Baltimore City Schools principals, we are an approved vendor on K-12 Buy! For principals anywhere else, I would love to talk to you.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.