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.
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the first post of the new blog.
My husband and I recently finished watching the new Netflix documentary, Inside Bill's Brain. We both found Bill Gates' story to be fascinating and inspiring, impressed by how he and his wife have channeled their intellect, curiosity, and empathy into an idea generation machine -- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- to solve the world's toughest problems. While I, of course, felt like I immediately needed to get off the couch and do something good for the world, I also found myself reflecting on how Bill Gates reached this point in his life.
In the documentary, Gates talks about the many opportunities that allowed him to become the computing prodigy that he is and was. I was immediately reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I had read many years before. Gladwell highlighted the incredible opportunities that Gates encountered in his early years that facilitated his exponential growth. Both Outliers and Inside Bill's Brain discuss the prestigious private school in which Gates was enrolled for his adolescent and teenage years, which allowed him to learn to code and develop programs in the school's computer lab ... in the 1960s. My Baltimore City Public Schools classroom in 2011 did not have any technology! Gladwell writes:
"We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?"
Both the documentary and Gladwell's case study also highlight the resources into which Gates was born. Gates himself admits that his family was wealthy, and during his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, he had two professional, working parents. The documentary speaks in great detail to the power his mother had in the community, serving on boards and building an impressive network. Her connections were so impressive, in fact, that Gates shares how she forced him to meet with Warren Buffett and facilitated that connection for her son. My first thought was, "That is SOME social capital!"
The esteemed sociologist James Coleman discusses his theory of social capital in his 1988 "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." He explains that the resources and connections that people have access to through their close relationships and communities can have profound impacts on personal and professional outcomes. Examples of social capital might include community members sharing job opportunities with each other, elder family or community members connecting youth to an internship or mentor, or professional individuals serving as positive role models for others in their circles. In each of these scenarios, people have access to opportunities, exposure to new ideas and people, and the ability to see what they themselves could become. Now imagine what happens when none of these resources are present in the life of a child or young adult. Coleman suggests that without social capital, an individual's outcomes might look quite different: "Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible."
Gates benefited a great deal from his sheer luck of being born into a family of means, but this certainly does not diminish his genius or impact on the world. However, the social capital he had access to in his youth had, without a doubt, an enormous impact on his success in life. As Gladwell muses, what about every other teenager? Don't they deserve the same opportunities and resources? If our most disadvantaged communities were rich with opportunity and home-grown role models and free from the oppression caused by centuries of systematic, legalized discrimination, we would only be able to imagine how many more Bill Gates the world would have.
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.