The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
A temporary fix
Why It Matters
Research has established a link between the experience of trauma and school misbehavior and academic failure. Hard data on the number of traumatized children is sketchy, but surveys show that as many as a quarter of children in rough Chicago neighborhoods have witnessed a shooting. Helping these children is proving to be difficult.
* This year, Chicago Public Schools trained 205 social workers, psychologists and counselors in an evidence-based trauma group therapy program. But only 13 percent of those trained got groups underway.
* CPS is providing no extra staff and few resources to support mental health services, such as group therapy programs in schools. Fewer than 4 percent of traditional CPS schools have full-time social workers.
* CPS’ crisis team has shrunk over the past five years, though it is handling three times the number of calls.
* A state program for young traumatized children can serve only 300 a year in Chicago, and some locations have waiting lists.
Only 16 district-run schools have their own full-time social worker, and most of the 16 are turnaround schools that will only have the extra resources temporarily.
One of these is Fenger High in Roseland, a school that CPS points to as a model: Located in a troubled community where violence is common, the extra support provided for students has made a difference, district officials maintain.
Principal Elizabeth Dozier boasts of a sharp—66 percent—decrease in student misconduct reports since she took over in the summer of 2009.
Fenger’s enrollment is down by about 40 percent, which means there are simply fewer students to punish. But Dozier contends that the decline is due to a transformation in how the school deals with students who are acting out.
That transformation is financed with a three-year, $6 million federal school improvement grant. The money pays for initiatives like the CARE team, which is comprised of a psychologist, social worker and counselor.
But next school year will be the last year Fenger has the extra money. “I don’t know what we are going to do,” says Dozier. “I really don’t. We still have the same students here, living in the same neighborhood.”
Schools in violence-plagued neighborhoods are desperate for extra mental health support. The difference between what is happening at these schools, compared to turnaround schools, is stark.
Take McKay Elementary in Chicago Lawn and Bradwell Elementary in South Shore, both communities where homicides and other crime are common. Bradwell is a turnaround school run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. It has two social workers, one social work assistant and one youth intervention specialist. McKay has just one counselor. Other clinicians come from the citywide pool and are assigned based on the needs of the special education students.
McKay’s school improvement plan notes the dearth of services, stating “Counseling services are not readily available for students or families who are in need.”
With the right resources, though, schools can make inroads in providing social-emotional support.
When fights erupt at Fenger, students are sent to peace circles to resolve the conflict, or teachers talk them through the situation and give them the tools to resolve the dispute on their own.
Dozier also organized schedules so that teachers have time to talk to each other about students, making it easier to identify teens who are acting out, withdrawn or giving up. If the teachers flag a student, they fill out a referral form.
Then the CARE team meets to figure out what the student needs.
Sometimes the team pushes the student to get involved in an after-school activity, such as mentoring or a leadership program. But often the student is brought into counseling or group therapy.
Psychologist Patrick Gauld has been running a Think First group, which teaches anger management, and a CBITS group at Fenger for two years. CBITS stands for Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools, a group therapy program for children who have been exposed to trauma that CPS wants schools to adopt. Think First is another therapy program that CPS is promoting in schools.
Some of the participants have been witness to, or the victim of, gun violence. More commonly, the child’s primary caregiver, a mother or a grandmother, has died.
Beyond the group sessions, Gauld says the students benefit from developing a support system of peers who know and understand what they have been through. Some of the students have even volunteered to be co-facilitators because they find it useful to continue to participate.
“We forget that our students go through a lot and that many of them have difficulty leaving problems behind when they walk in the school door,” Gauld says.
Gauld has seen a marked decrease in students experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. They say they are sleeping better and are more able to deal with their emotions.
Elayne Sledge, a senior who is participating in the Think First program, says therapy groups and other supports have completely changed the culture inside Fenger.
Sledge says she, too, has experienced personal changes. Instead of acting out when she gets upset, she wiggles her shoulders—a calming technique taught in the group.
Sledge taught her young daughter some of the techniques also.
“It is going to make me a better role model,” Sledge says. “I used to get mad and cuss people out. Now I just breathe and talk to myself, in my head. I tell myself it [showing anger] is not worth it.”