The Schools we Need, Understanding Trauma and Focussing on Recovery

“Johnny” was having a bad day.  He has had a lot of bad days.  Mom wasn’t there to take him to school.  Less than 10, he walked to the bus stop.  He tripped, and he thought that some older students laughed.  He wanted to fight them.  By the time he is at school, he’s angry and staff can tell.

He wants to put the ball he brought to school in its cubby, which is the process.  School staff block him, he pushes through, and it’s on…The police are eventually called.  He’s suspended, though not arrested, he has been detained before, paraded in handcuffs to a police car as the student body watched.

Johnny is a nice kid, but he’s traumatized, some of it I know, some I don’t, but from an unsettlingly early age he has talked about hurting himself or worse. He will pick fights with adults on the street for some perceived injustice, and as he gets bigger they will stop seeing him as a child, and he will probably get hurt, unless he gets help.

So often schools just shunt kids like Johnny into behavioral classrooms, where the academic content is watered down, they are concentrated with all the highest needs students, and fall further and further behind.  The school doesn’t know how to deal with him, and they don’t really try, they just separate him from the other kids.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  There are great examples out there of models for understanding and really supporting student needs, let’s look at two; Mott Haven Charter and John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter.

Mott Haven Charter School (aka “the Haven”), founded by friend and colleague Jessica Nauiokas, in partnership with the NY Foundling serves 1/3 foster children, 1/3 foster involved children and 1/3 kids from the community.  They were recently profiled in thisarticle in the74.  The school normalizes the experiences of these kids, does comprehensive early screenings for academic, social, and developmental needs, creates a rich staffing structure that includes counselors and support staff, and overall works to create a stable, safe, caring family within the school that supports both the wellness of kids as well as their academic growth.

You can read more about how they do what they do, but the approach is really to understand the students and their needs, and to provide a set of wraparound services to meet them.  They built the school for the kids and families and not for the adults that work in it, or based on the inertia of our own experiences.  And they are getting great results.

John W. Lavelle Preparatory Academy (aka “Lavelle Prep”) is the first school in NY to target students with emerging mental health challenges, deliberately build a program consciously around meeting those needs and supporting recovery.  Something like 12% of adolescents will be challenged by a significant mental health issue, and these students have the highest dropout rate of any special education category.  Many of these students are suspended, and many more just stop coming to school.

Lavelle was designed with the mental health community to integrate supports, develop relationships and ultimately to help students develop the skills to cope and recover.  All students work through their “stuff” at the school with supportive staff.   Addressing challenges is an explicit part of the curriculum, and again here, students who might feel different at other schools are normalized, fit in, and are embraced by the school structures.

Full disclosure—I am on the Board of Lavelle—but one of the things that sticks out with these schools, is that students facing significant challenges – don’t stick out.  As the founder of the Haven said, “I feel like one of our responsibilities is to normalize the experience of a child welfare child or a child in foster care has by being here…I think we help make it easier for our children just to be able to share natural components of their day and not feel stigmatized about it.”

And similarly at Lavelle Prep—I remember one potential funder who toured the school, who left unimpressed, stating that it just looked like any other school.  That he didn’t see anything special and couldn’t even tell who the kids who were facing severe mental health challenges were.

To me, that’s the point exactly.

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