March 21 — 6:43 pm, 2018

Our opinion: District and city must unite to ward off trauma’s effects

This is the third print edition that the Notebook has dedicated to discussing trauma and its impact on children, their learning, their schools, and their teachers. It comes as the Notebook is in the second year of funding for beat reporting dedicated to stories about education and behavioral health, thanks to the van Ameringen Foundation.

At this point, we have written dozens of stories, interviewed at least 100 people, and even produced a video and article series on a school that has pioneered trauma-informed education.

In some ways, a lot has changed since our first behavioral health issue in 2014.

An understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs as they are often called, is now widespread. A 2013 study of ACEs in Philadelphia indicated that 81 percent of adults had experienced at least one. About one-third had experienced physical or emotional abuse, and more than 40 percent had witnessed violence. One in four had a household member with mental illness.

The effects of ACEs on everything from students’ behavior inside the classroom to even the health of adults has become the subject of deep study.

The terms “trauma-informed care” or “trauma-informed education” have moved from buzzwords to full-blown training programs. Schools and businesses are working to make sure that their employees understand the approach and its central questions – instead of “What is wrong with you?” try “What happened to you?” and “How can we help?”

Perhaps the clearest indication that the District has stepped up its commitment to trauma-informed education is the addition in spring 2017 of Iesha Brown-Pygatt as the director of trauma-informed school practices in its Office of Prevention and Intervention.

Until now, the effort to bring a trauma-informed approach to Philadelphia schools has been largely piecemeal.

Individual principals, teachers and counselors have sought out training – often producing remarkable results.

Local teacher education schools, seeing the overwhelming need, have developed programs to better prepare student teachers for the behavioral health issues they will face in the classroom.

The issue of trauma is pervasive throughout the 12 community schools, which are pioneering several approaches that might work across the city.

But some advocates worry that doing something like this school by school means that the strategies may not be scalable or sustainable. And although we sincerely applaud and cheer on these efforts, we cannot lay all of the responsibility for dealing with the high trauma levels among our city’s children at the District’s feet.

The problem is too big and too complex, and much of it is outside the scope of what the School District can do alone.

Take, for example, the successful citywide Read by 4th campaign. Teaching children to read is core to the District’s mission. This targeted effort is what schools are built to do and what teachers are trained to do. And it is the kind of movement that appeals to volunteers and businesses who want to support the schools – reading is fundamental! It is universal! It’s fun!

But dealing with intergenerational poverty and trauma? That is really complex and will involve many different kinds of services.

For Read by 4th, foundations and businesses have been helping to fund targeted teacher training, assuring that virtually all early elementary teachers are exposed to best practices and then following up with additions to classroom libraries and teacher coaches.

While the District has state-of-the-art and popular opportunities for teachers and other school workers to become trauma-informed, bringing the training to all staff is still a work in progress. Accomplishing this in a systematic way will require more resources and help from the community at large. Now, the training is voluntary, and staff who take advantage of it are not paid for their time. Still, nearly 900 teachers and principals have done so.

Now the question must be: How do we create systems of care around kids with enormous trauma?

The School District must be a big part of the solution, but this effort will require others to help. As Chief of Student Support Services Karyn Lynch says in our cover story, the District is trying to work more closely with the city’s Office of Community Behavioral Health, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, and the Department of Human Services.

A good sign of increased cooperation is a new project to place social workers in 22 schools. Right now, it is a pilot project. But it should be a no-brainer. (City charter schools, with more staffing leeway, almost always decide to hire a social worker.)

Relocating more city social workers in all District schools would be an excellent way to connect students with services and knit the District and the city together in dealing with an issue that pervades every aspect of a city child’s life


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