A recent St. Louis Public Radio podcast highlighted issues that the SLPS Foundation and the District have been working closely to address: How can teachers, schools, and students create a positive school culture where learning intensifies and the need for disciplinary actions decreases? How can SLPS support its bold new ban on all suspensions for students K-2?
In the podcast, one of SLPS’s partners in this work, St. Louis University criminologist Norm White, described a reality: “You have kids sitting in a classroom, trying to study for a test that’s going to make the determination of whether their school district or their school gets funding…And they’re thinking about life. ‘Where do I sleep tonight? Do I eat tonight?’ That’s a reality we have to know.”
Norm White leads the Shut It Down initiative that is working in seven elementary schools to help educators, families and leaders adequately address the stress and trauma that are real parts of many students’ lives. “The teachers in these schools have a hard job,” he notes, “They have kids who are experiencing life in ways that we cannot understand.” At Adams Elementary School, Principal Cameron Coleman and his staff have embraced the support an initiative like Shut it Down can bring: training for teachers, coping skills for students, and resources for families.
Over the past couple of years, there has been increased attention both nationally and locally to the biological effects of childhood exposure to trauma, impacting behavioral patterns and child development, and increasing the risk of major chronic diseases. A variety of efforts by individual SLPS schools, community initiatives, the District, and the SLPS Foundation seek to support students’ mental and emotional wellness, reduce disciplinary incidents, and respond to the reality that the vast majority of SLPS students experience trauma in one form or another, impacting students’ ability to learn and grow.
The SLPS Foundation is partnering with the District to secure more resources and community partners to ensure that schools have appropriate training and access to behavioral health services to address students’ mental health needs. In the past two months, the Foundation has participated in attracting a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support staff training at eighteen district elementary schools, six north county schools, and six nonpublic schools, as well as to provide embedded therapists at three SLPS school sites. Additionally, the St. Louis Mental Health Board and Community That Cares (formerly System of Care) awarded funding to support the mental health-related activities at the Mercy Clinic at Roosevelt High School.
Schools have also been working at their own communities to seek out additional training and resources in order to create a trauma-informed school culture:
- Seven SLPS schools have been working with the Shut It Down initiative on an on-going basis to create a trauma-informed environment, to ultimately decrease students’ interactions with the criminal justice systems.
- Stix Early Childhood Center and Farragut Elementary are both partnering closely with Alive & Well to establish Learning Collaboratives among school staff, to work in the long-term to establish a trauma-informed staff culture in their schools.
- SLPS Foundation is funding four schools with school innovation grants to create alternative learning spaces, quiet zones and / or train staff to help students recognize and manage their feelings.
- Four schools reached out to Alive & Well to participate in their introductory training on trauma-informed practices.
In the spring of 2016, the District made a policy decision to ban suspension for the District’s youngest children, recognizing that, if school staff is provided the proper support and tools, staff can respond with an understanding of how problem behaviors may be connected to a traumatic experience, and connect the student to support rather than removing them from the classroom. In order to support staff in this new policy, the District has expanded a specialized response program called Positive Behavior Intervention Support, has ensured that all schools have either a school social worker or school counselor, and has been working with the SLPS Foundation to secure private and public support for staff training and, for the neediest schools, on-site therapists trained in trauma response. So far, the new policies and additional support and training seem to be making a difference across the District – as compared to this time last year, out-of-school suspensions are down by 75%.