Minnesota high school screens students for ACEs to develop trauma-informed education

Paladin students on a field trip to Minneapolis to see the play, Romeo and Juliet.


At many high schools across the U.S, it’s spring break time. Most kids and teachers can’t wait to get away from school with their families for a week.

Not so at Paladin Career & Technical High School in Blaine, MN, outside Minneapolis.

“The week before break the level of anxiety gets pretty extreme around here,” says Leisa Irwin executive director of Paladin. “It’s the same before any holiday break.”

The kids don’t want to leave…for good reason. There’s nothing fun or relaxing about spending a week at home. Most students come from homes and neighborhoods filled with violence, alcohol and drug abuse. They live with families where humiliation, neglect, mental illness and hopelessness are part of everyday life. A stark 34% of Paladin students are homeless; they hang out on dangerous streets for a week in cold weather. The school is their haven.

So, the school, which is located in a mall, stays open, and kids drop in all week long, says Irwin. “There’s always somebody here; we’re always here for the kids.”

That approach represents just one small way in which Irwin changed the school to give the students what they need to be successful, instead of forcing the kids to comply with a traditional education system that, until they found Paladin, made their lives even more difficult.

“Education’s in serious trouble,” says Irwin, because most people think that the best way to help a kid who’s not succeeding in school is to provide them tutoring…or kick them out if they cause enough trouble.

“There isn’t enough tutoring in the world to fill gaps in these kids,” she says. “It’s not about tutoring, it’s about how to help students focus on education.” And to do that, she and her staff first had to create a safe environment, build trust between students and their teachers and staff, create a different way for kids to learn, and assess their progress in a very different way.

The results? Remarkable. Graduation rates up over 30% percent. The number of students planning to attend a two or four-year college increased from 16% to 84% in three years. Suspensions are rare, due to the restorative justice program, and, in the last three years, there have only been three expulsions.

But it’s not just these numbers that are measures of success, says Irwin. It’s much, much deeper than that.


photo 1
SeniorRobin Buckner (l) with Paladin executive director Leisa Irwin. Buckner is applying to a two-year college. ______________________________

Irwin remembers the day that everything changed in her life. She’d come to Paladin in July 2011 as interim executive director while still managing her consulting company where she served as chief financial officer for several schools.

She was helping move students on buses for a field trip to a college fair, and one of the students erupted into a “loud and angry outburst,” recalls Irwin, who somehow wraps high energy, a no-nonsense attitude and extreme caring into one ebullient personality. The staff had warned her that several students were likely to have meltdowns.

Irwin told the student she wasn’t going to the fair, and to return to the building. The student screamed: “You effing fat bi7@h, you are not going to tell me what to do, who do you think you are?”

Now, many principals would have lost all patience at that point and immediately suspended or expelled the young woman. Instead, Irwin revealed her genius by…. being baffled. She sat down with the student in her office, she asked her why she was angry, and told her that she really, really wanted to understand.

“I was expecting to hear that she wanted to ride the other bus because her friends were on the other bus,” she notes in an essay about the incident. “I expected to hear that she did not want me telling her that she could not go on the trip when her friends could hear everything that was going on. All of these responses would have made sense to me.”

Instead, the student – whom Irwin calls Emily for purposes of relating this event, although it’s not her real name — burst into tears and told Irwin that her mother had ordered her to pack her stuff and get out of the house after the student had shouted at and hit her brother after he had pummeled her while she was sleeping on the couch.

Irwin thought she could offer clear solutions to Emily’s situation. She calmly suggested that Emily sleep in her own room with the door closed so that her brother couldn’t bother her, and to repair the relationship with her mother. Emily explained that she always slept on the couch, she hadn’t had a room in years, her mother lived in Section 8 housing, and because Emily was 18 and an adult, she technically wasn’t supposed to be living there.

Undaunted, Irwin surmised that the mother was probably just having a rough day, and suggested the student call her mom. The conversation was also not what Irwin expected.

“From the cell phone, I heard Emily’s mom answer the phone, yelling, ‘What the hell do you want?’” Irwin recalls. “Emily replied with, ‘Shut the f#x8 up mom, I’m in the principal’s office.’ To which mom replied, ‘You f#x8in ho, don’t be bothering me with this f#x8in shit. I have to work tonight, I can’t do shit to help you with your f#x8in mess. Figure it out b!7@h.’ And then Emily’s mom hung up.

Irwin suddenly understood where the student learned how to curse. And she also understood that the school was her sanctuary, and that it needed to be her sanctuary because she literally had nothing else in her life.

“It forced me to identify the real issues facing the students at Paladin,” notes Irwin, and it was deeper than poverty, or if they were behind in their grade level, or if they were on probation, or if they were designated learning disabled because they were on a special education plan.

So in an effort to develop a school-wide approach to dealing with the real issues that students were grappling with, Irwin and the

Miriam (Mim) Mueller (l), work-based learning and transitions coordinator and Vikki Johnson (r), student support services coordinator.  
Miriam (Mim) Mueller (l), work-based learning and transitions coordinator and Vikki Johnson (r), student support services coordinator.

staff spent the year digging into the lives of the students, to try to identify exactly what those issues were.

“The questions we asked,” explains Irwin, “included things like substance abuse, interactions with the legal system, single-parent homes, were the students living on their own, did they have children of their own, were there other adults involved in their lives, etc. And then we analyzed what we had learned, and started planning how we could address the issues at a school wide level.”

They developed a list of 15 risk factors that impede the ability of a student to engage in learning. These are:

  1. Free/reduced priced lunch eligibility (indicates economic poverty)
  2. Special education status (a defined learning, health or behavioral disability)
  3. Race (a minority student)
  4. Criminal record
  5. Gang affiliation
  6. Young parent (has one or more children)
  7. Home mobility – moved more than five times in their lives
  8. Educational mobility – attended three or more high schools
  9. Witness to many violent acts (in home, neighborhood or elsewhere)
  10. Crime victim
  11. Mental illness
  12. Homeless (currently, or persistently in the past)
  13. Suicidal
  14. Drug use (including alcohol)
  15. More than one year behind in high school

A few months after they developed this list, Irwin found out about the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study and related ACEs research. It was another profound moment for Irwin, because it explained much of her kids’ behaviors. The ACE Study showed a direct link between 10 types of childhood adversity and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Five of the types measured were personal – physical, verbal and sexual abuse, and physical and emotional neglect. Five were family dysfunctions: a family member incarcerated or mentally ill or addicted to alcohol or other drug, witnessing a mother being battered, and losing a parent to divorce or separation.

The study found that of the 17,000 mostly white, middle class, college educated, Kaiser health-insured adults who participated in the ACE Study, nearly two-thirds experienced at least one type of severe childhood trauma. About 40% had suffered two or more. The study found that a person with four or more adverse childhood experiences is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, 10 times more likely to inject street drugs, seven times more likely to be an alcoholic, two-and-a-half times more likely to have a stroke, and twice as likely to have cancer. The lifespans of people with ACE scores of 6 are shortened by 20 years. ACE studies have now been done in 29 states and Washington, D.C., with similar results.

Why this happens is explained by what happens when children experience trauma: Their brains instantly react by going into fight, flight or freeze mode. They produce an overload of stress hormones — such as cortisol and adrenaline — that actually harm the function and structure of their brain. This is called “toxic” stress.

If they have no safe adult living in a safe environment to rely on, children with toxic stress respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school, fail to develop healthy relationships with peers, or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three.

With despair, anxiety, guilt, depression and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, violence, crime, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. Consciously or unconsciously, they use them as solutions to escape….from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

This doesn’t excuse kids’ behavior, ACEs experts say, but the solution to helping them heal is to help them resolve their underlying issues instead of putting them in a system that further traumatizes them.

So, to the list of 15 risk factors, Irwin added the 10 types of ACEs. Paladin staff call these 25 risk factors the Benchmark for Success Obstacle Score, or ACEs Plus and it’s used to evaluate each student.

The results are staggering, says Irwin. In the 2013-2014 school year

  • 43% of the students lost a parent to divorce, abandonment or separation.
  • 24% had a parent who’s been in prison.
  • 41% had been homeless in the last 5 years.
  • 11% had a child.
  • 57% had used or are currently using drugs.
  • 17% had used street drugs, such as meth or heroin.
  • 50% had moved more than 5 times in their lives.
  • 81% were at least two years behind in school.
  • 33% had lived with people who abused alcohol or other drugs.

And, most telling: in the 81 percent of the students who were two or more years behind in school, 91 percent had an ACE score of five or more, and an ACE Plus score of 17 or more.

Yoga class at Paladin.
Yoga class at Paladin.

For many the free lunch at the school is the only food they eat in a day. Regardless of a student’s free or reduced lunch status, all students have access to free breakfast and lunch. The school has found that for the students who did not qualify for free or reduced priced meals, it was because they did not turn in their paperwork, and not because their family income was too high. Most of those using drugs or who had used drugs had received no treatment. And many with mental health issues were not receiving any follow up care.

The students, by the way, are a diverse group: In the 2013-2014 school year, 47% were white, 40% black, 9% Hispanic, 3% American Indian and 1% Pacific Islander. (This school year, 50% are black, 45% white, and 5% Hispanic.)

All this detailed knowledge about the students has helped shape the revolutionary approach Paladin takes to educating the students. So did learning about the changes that Lincoln High School, another alternative school in Walla Walla, WA, had made. After learning about Jim Sporleder, who was then principal at Lincoln, and how he’d led the school to becoming trauma-informed and had seen his students blossom (89% drop in suspensions the first year, with grades, test scores, graduation rates going up), Irwin took heart that she wasn’t alone in her efforts. Now they are writing a book together.

First, administration, staff and teachers make sure that they’ve created a welcoming and safe place. Students, especially these students, can’t learn if they’re constantly on guard. This means making sure that the staff and teachers prevent bullying, that they understand a student’s triggers and do their best to intervene before a student erupts or withdraws.

The school hires teachers and staff who have a deep understanding about trauma and adversity, and provides continuous training

The Learning Lab at Paladin.
The Learning Lab at Paladin.

in these areas. When conflicts arise, the school uses a restorative justice approach to resolve problems.

The school also expanded its physical space and underwent a complete remodel, so that the dreary mall-like atmosphere changed into a vibrant learning environment.

Paladin is a project-based learning school, says Irwin. Students attend seminars of their choice, and complete projects to earn credit. They work with teachers who guide them in building problem-solving skills and managing workflow as they complete their projects.

“The benefit of project based learning in this environment cannot be understated,” says Irwin, “we will never fully fill in the education gaps that were missed in the past 10 to 15 years of a student’s life, but we can teach students how to learn. We can teach them how to identify issues, use credible research, analyze results, and make decisions. Those skills are transferable into any college or career, and will give these young people the tools they need to learn whatever it is they need to learn in the future.”

The school also identifies each student’s list of obstacles so that they can create an individual plan for the student. Each student is provided a student success coordinator who works with that student throughout their time at Paladin. In addition to tutoring and small-group learning, the supports provided a student may include counseling, medical care, and food, clothing and shelter.

Because the students deal with so much adversity in their lives, the school decided to develop other measures of success besides test scores and grades. They settled on the Casey Life Skills, which focus on building skills, such as daily living activities, budgeting and paying bills, computer literacy and permanent connections to caring adults that imbue resilience in the kids. They also use the Hope Survey, which identifies how students feel about themselves and how they view their relationship with the community. These are all indicators of resilience, a key component to addressing adverse childhood experiences.

The school also educates the students about ACEs and resilience, and several students have focused their projects on some aspect of ACEs, such as drug abuse. The school has started an ACEs group comprising students and staff who develop plans to educate the community about ACEs and trauma-informed, resilience-building practices.

Irwin says that Paladin is now in year three of a five-year plan to “link specific interventions to specific obstacles with a measureable outcomes”. In other words, to produce solid research that shows how their formula of designing a school to fit the needs of kids helps the kids more than traditional high schools.

And what happened to Emily? Irwin notes that she spent a few nights at a friend’s house before they were able to convince her mom to let her back on the couch. “That was better than the streets,” notes Irwin.

Emily graduated from Paladin in 2013. She’s working in the medical field and earns enough money to support herself and her family. She’s pregnant with her second child. She visits the school from time to time, and brings her daughter along.

“She is still learning, still growing into adulthood, and she is hopeful for her future,” notes Irwin. “I call that a success.”




  1. Hi Robert Wedl, I agree. And it’s the constant battle that schools face when they serve populations of students who have been pushed out of, or have left, mainstream school systems. I don’t see this trend of focusing on test scores and graduation rates shifting anytime soon. And quite honestly, I don’t think it needs to, instead we need a system that values the students for whatever outcomes they achieve; be it test scores, early graduation, joining the work force, engaging in their communities, recovering from trauma, going to college, whatever it is. I have to believe that there is a way to celebrate high test scores and also celebrate persistence and resilience. I hope that with enough schools and organizations understanding toxic stress, working to build resilience in youth, and demonstrating these successes, both short and long term, that we can see the trend shift to one that is more balanced. That won’t happen overnight, but I am hopeful for the future. And Bob, I can’t thank you enough for the support you have shown to Paladin, and all MN students! You are truly a leader in education, and your support means the world to us.


  2. When most read this they will likely say, “What an amazing school. You have turned around the lives of these students and not just them but their children and generations to follow. You have broken the cycle. And Paladin does all of this for less money than a district school receives.Thank you.” But what is so sad is that under No Child Left Behind, this school is labeled a “failing school.”


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