Failing schools or failing paradigm?

Roberto is an eight-year-old, former student in my second-grade class.  (All names are pseudonyms.)  In his short life, he’s experienced at least five major life traumas. One: his mother abandoned him when he was a baby. Two: he was placed in foster care with strangers. Three: he joined his father, but shortly after, Daddy was sent to prison. Four: Roberto moved again to live with Grandpop. Grandpop was ill and on house arrest, unable to leave his home, so Roberto was essentially under “house arrest” too, except for school. Roberto came to school, walked the perimeter of the classroom staring out windows, distracting other children. Sometimes, he just walked out of the classroom. His father was eventually released from prison and came to live with Grandpop, but Grandpop soon evicted Daddy after a fight with him. Five: Grandpop died.

Ashley, a bright and engaging nine-year-old, witnessed her stepfather break her stepbrother’s leg with a baseball bat last night. The police were called, invaded her home about 1 a.m., and took her stepfather away. This morning, she came to school as usual, but in a trance, unable to focus.

Jasmine responds much more aggressively. When she is off her medications, and her traumas are re-triggered, her tiny, wiry 45-pound frame can muscle a chair over her head. She screams and curses in guttural tones while heaving the chair at a classmate. She’s being raised by a hesitant uncle in place of her deceased parents.  Jasmine goes home to a darkened row-house, with ”illegal smoke” wafting out the front door that hangs wide open to the street.

Jamar’s been absent from school. After several suicide attempts, he’s at the Crisis Center. Jamar suffered brutal beatings from Mom’s boyfriend, who stuffed a sock in his mouth to muffle his screams. He will come back directly to my classroom from the Crisis Center, without the dedicated adult support he is due.

Ashley, Roberto, Jasmine and Jamar had at least eight other classmates with similar stories in our one classroom at the same time. These four real vignettes are hard to read. They’re tragic. Yet these kids are only a small portion of my class.  For the last 13 years, one-half to two-thirds of the students in my urban, public school classrooms have experienced similar lives.  These children are only four of the thousands across only one city: Philadelphia.

Theirs is not a deficit issue. They’re not “sick” or “bad” children; they’re injured.

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In the middle of the night, finding resilience in a storm of ACEs

Astress2I had been asleep for a few hours when I answered the call.  At first, I did not realize it was my work cell phone.  The caller on the other end was sobbing uncontrollably and in the background I could hear someone yelling, “You’re a f#c%ing hoe.  Why do you think you are so much better than us? What makes you think you can live here for free, you f#c%ing b!t@#.”

“Take a deep breath,” I said to the caller. “Tell me where you are.”

“I’m at home. My mom and sister won’t leave me alone. They want me to f#c% men for money, like my sister does. They are mad that I am a going to school and not giving them any money. I just want to graduate.  I just want a chance to get out of here. They don’t understand and they won’t leave me alone.”

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Echo Parenting & Education rides the trauma wave

Changing the Paradigm keynote speakers Dr. Janina Fisher and Ruth Beaglehole, Founder of Echo Parenting & Education

Sometimes we don’t notice when history is being made. We ride a wave of logical progression and don’t even notice when it peaks – that snapshot moment when we are lifted, arms outstretched, into the waiting air and remain suspended for one glorious second before the wave breaks and pushes powerfully to shore.

What the heck am I talking about? Our Changing the Paradigm conference. Last month, 120 participants, 22 speakers and a slew of volunteers gathered at The California Endowment for our two-day conference on developmental trauma. Everything went off perfectly. The evaluations were glowing (apart from the person who wanted avocado on the lunchtime sandwiches – I guess you can’t please everyone). But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some of the speakers had to say:

“It was a deep honor and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and inspiring exchange of hearts, minds

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Trying to make LA schools less toxic is hit-and-miss; relatively few students receive care they need

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The Peacemakers of Harmony Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA.

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For millions of troubled children across the country, schools have been toxic places. That’s not just because many schools don’t control bullying by students or teachers, but because they enforce arbitrary and discriminatory zero tolerance school discipline policies, such as suspensions for “willful defiance”. Many also ignore the kids who sit in the back of the room and don’t engage – the ones called “lazy” or “unmotivated” – and who are likely to drop out of school.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which banned suspensions for willful defiance last May, the CBITS program (pronounced SEE-bits), aims to find and help troubled students before their reactions to their own trauma trigger a punitive response from their school environment, including a teacher or principal.

Gabriella Garcia’s son attended Harmony Elementary School during the 2012-2013 school year. The school has 730 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. She says without CBITS, she would have lost custody of him and her other two children. “But for some reason,” she says, “I let him (her son) take that test.”

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San Francisco’s El Dorado Elementary uses trauma-informed & restorative practices; suspensions drop 89%

El Dorado Elementary School Principal Silvia Cordero announces one of the winners of the weekly student-of-the-week award.

El Dorado Elementary School Principal Silvia Cordero announces one of the winners of the weekly student-of-the-week award.

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For one young student – let’s call him Martin — the 2012-2013 school year at El Dorado Elementary in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood of San Francisco was a tough one, recalls Joyce Dorado, director of UCSF HEARTS — Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools.

“He was hurting himself in the classroom, kicking the teacher, just blowing out of class many times a week.” There was good reason. The five-year-old was exposed to chronic violence and suffered traumatic losses. His explosions were normal reactions to events that overwhelmed him.

This year, Martin’s doing better. That’s because he spent months working with a HEARTS therapist, and that therapist worked with his teachers and other school staff to create a more safe and supportive learning environment. Still, on days when he feels extremely anxious, Martin sometimes asks to visit the school’s Wellness Center, a small, bright room stocked with comforting places to sit, headphones to listen to music, and soft and squishy toys.

“If a student starts to lose it, the teacher can give the kid a pass to go to the Wellness Center,” says Dorado. “The kid signs in, circles emotions on a ‘feelings’ chart (to help the person who staffs the center understand how to help the child). The staff member starts a timer. The kid gets five to 10 minutes. The kid can sit on the couch with a blanket, listen to music, squeeze rubber balls to relieve tension and anger, or talk to the staff member. Kids who use the room calm down so that they can go back to class. It’s not a punishment room. It’s not a time-out room. It’s not an in-school suspension room. It’s a room where you feel better going out than when you went in.”

One day this year, as school staff members are meeting in the Wellness Center, Martin bursts in. “I need to borrow something,” he tells them. “Somebody needs my help.”

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At Reedley (CA) High School, suspensions drop 40%, expulsions 80% in two years with PBIS, restorative justice; but going the distance might require more tools

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In 2009, when the Kings Canyon Unified School District in California’s rural Central Valley offered its 19 schools the opportunity to adopt a system that would reduce school suspensions and expulsions, Reedley High School jumped at the chance.

Today, Reedley is in its fourth year of changing a zero-tolerance policy that has failed this school and community miserably, just as every zero-tolerance policy across the country has. The school, which has 1,900 students, is feeling its way out of those draconian days by integrating PBIS — Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support — and entering into a unique partnership with the West Coast Mennonite Central Committee and the local police department to implement a successful restorative justice program.

This approach is already having remarkable effect. The school saw a 40% drop in suspensions from the 2010-2011 to the 2012-2013 school year — from 401 to 249 suspensions involving 198 and 80 students, respectively. Expulsions went from 94 in 2010-2011 to 20 last year. But this year’s trends indicate that impressive decline may have stalled out.

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New federal guidance should help slow the flow in “school-to-prison pipeline”, but much work remains

AzeroAdvocates for fair and effective school discipline practices received a boost from the federal government with new guidance issued by the Departments of Education and Justice on January 8.  The guidance instructs schools on how to administer school discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  In addition to the guidance, the Administration issued a package of resources to assist in the improvement of school climates and discipline, including key principles and action steps based on best practices and emerging research.

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Suspensions plummet with peer mediation, but at this school, it’s just another program that’s going away

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Mt. Diablo High School peer mediators Cheyna Reed, Dajon (Broddy) Mathis, Ashley Holmes and Kristen Burns.

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In May 2011, Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, CA, hired social worker Deonne Wesley to coordinate a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Safe and Supportive Schools program. The program was set up to “create and support safe and drug-free learning environments and to increase academic success for students in these high-risk schools”.

It took a year for California to lay the foundation for the program, and another year for each of the 58 participating school districts to hire staff. At Mt. Diablo, which has 1,340 students, the program was up and running during the 2012-2013 school year.

Wesley trained 18 students to be peer mediators to work with students who were suspended for fighting, and to help prevent fights.

Those mediators worked with 46 students who had racked up 51 days of suspension for fighting in school. The peer mediators, with Wesley supervising, helped the students talk out the dispute and come to an agreement on how to avoid further conflict. Afterwards, the number of suspensions for those 46 students dropped to 19 for the rest of the school year.

The grant also funded a part-time drug and alcohol counselor. She led four eight-week workshops and two ongoing harm-reduction groups. Prior to attending the workshops, 80 students who attended at least two workshops had accumulated 242 days of suspensions. After they attended the workshops, the suspensions in that group dropped to six.

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In Vallejo, CA, schools — where referrals, suspensions, expulsions outnumbered students 5 to 1– there’s no place to go but up

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Dr. Ramona Bishop in her office in a building that was once part of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, CA.

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When Dr. Ramona Bishop walked into her office on April Fool’s Day in 2011, the Vallejo schools had hit rock-bottom: The system had been in receivership since 2004. Its 14,000 students were racking up nearly 80,000 referrals, suspensions, and expulsions that school year, making it one of the top ten suspending schools in the state. Academic scores had tanked. Only half the students were making it to graduation. And morale? What morale?

The City of Vallejo had just dragged itself out of a 2008 bankruptcy resulting from the double whammy of the housing bubble and the 1996 closing of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. It emerged emaciated, with all services cut to the bone.

Bishop couldn’t have asked for a more challenging job.

But this woman likes doing turn-arounds. She did one on a smaller scale when she was principal

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The Restorative Justice League of Le Grand High School jumps in to save the day

A teen starts a fistfight with a fellow student. Another brings alcohol to school. Another urinates on a fellow student’s locker, and a fight ensues.

Three years ago at Le Grand High School, in Le Grand, CA, these students would have been immediately expelled or suspended. This year, they weren’t. They didn’t miss any classes. They made amends. They learned from their mistakes.

In 2010-2011, Principal Javier Martinez suspended 49 students and expelled six. Last year, he suspended 15 and expelled only one.

This school year, with the help of the Restorative Justice League, he’s going for double zeros.

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Le Grand High School is tucked on the edge of a town so tiny it has not one traffic light. Orchards and fields

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