Dan Sweetland moved from his parents’ home – and the violence and drug use there – when he was 5.
After a year at his grandmother’s, he lived with an aunt until he was 12, then returned to his father’s.
“That’s when I started getting into trouble,” says Sweetland.
He used drugs and piled up criminal convictions: Burglary, criminal mischief, trespass. At 15, he spent a year at a juvenile rehabilitation center in Centralia.
School was the last thing on his mind.
Three years later, Sweetland is trying to add something new to his record: high school graduate.
At 18, he’s about a sophomore in terms of credits. He’s living with his girlfriend’s family. He says he sometimes struggles to keep up with the block schedule at his alternative school – each day has a different subject and schedule. After a lifelong rocky relationship with the traditional school system, Sweetland is standing at a rather large crossroads – he can continue toward his diploma or drop out.
Thousands of students in the Inland Northwest do the latter each year, and by doing so they put a leash on their future opportunities. In an economy that generally pays more for every additional level of education, dropouts are at the bottom. And the dropout population is made up heavily of students who are abused, neglected or living with some kind of trauma or chaos.
For them, dropping out is the farewell to a system that – for all its efforts and intentions – has not always served traumatized children well, experts say. The evidence is mounting that abuse and neglect saddle children with lifelong consequences in the workplace, at home and even in terms of life expectancy. Many experts say that no social institution is in a better place to break that pattern than schools.
“Schools are children’s communities,” says a recent report prepared in Massachusetts, titled “Helping Traumatized Children Learn.” “The idea that school can moderate the effects of trauma is supported by research from both developmental psychologies and trauma experts.”
Schools have been trying to do that for years, and the range of “non-academic” programs is large, from before- and after-school programs to free meals to mental-health services. But school districts and the state government are pushing to do even more, at all stages in the educational timeline, with new programs targeting early childhood learning, adolescent truancy, and the stubborn problem of dropouts.
Sweetland’s school, Contract-Based Education in the West Valley district, has just received a two-year, $330,000 grant to encourage alliances among agencies to prevent dropouts. He’s one of 400 students at CBE, the final stop on the system of alternative programs for students struggling in traditional school. Most of them are children of chaos – homeless or addicted, abused or crushingly poor.
Cleve Penberthy, CBE’s principal, says that if kids don’t make it there, they don’t make it.
“I’m not transferring them anywhere, I’m losing them – and the city’s losing them and the state’s losing them, and social services are picking them up,” he said.
For Sweetland, it’s that or nothing.
“I wouldn’t go to any other school,” he said. “If I got kicked out of here I wouldn’t go to school.”
Natalie Turner is among those at the front edge of a new push to train educators to deal with traumatized kids. Turner travels the state appearing at forums and training events, encouraging teachers to do something that may feel counterintuitive when a student raises hell: Don’t just punish them; help them.
“Blame has no place,” she told a roomful of educators and social workers at a Spokane conference in March. “From a biological foundation, they don’t have a choice in the way they’re acting.”
Turner, a research associate at Washington State University’s Area Health Education Center of Eastern Washington, points to research on brain development that shows traumatized children are put into a state of defensive, fight-or-flight-style alertness. This makes it hard to concentrate and hard to trust, and it can cast a shadow over a student’s entire academic life – the areas of the brain devoted to fear and self-defense grow like a well-exercised muscle, while those devoted to language and learning stall.
She argues that teachers and others in schools must learn not to take it personally when a student is defiant or disruptive, and work to find out what vulnerabilities lay underneath the behavior. Students who misbehave must be accountable for their actions, she said, but when punishment is the only reaction they receive it can create a scenario where the student is trapped into being seen as a troublemaker.
“You know that it’s not their fault,” she said. “It’s not their fault because they have been hard-wired not to be able to respond to their environment in the ways we expect them to.”
Turner and others statewide are working to create “trauma-sensitive schools” – places where everyone is more sensitive to identifying and responding to the trauma of kids. While much of the research into what’s happening with those kids is fresh, the most powerful possible solution that emerges is an age-old idea: Help the student form a positive relationship with an adult.
“It’s huge – personally, I think that is the one thing that can change the course of a kid’s life,” said Annie Blackledge, program supervisor for Building Bridges, a new state program targeting dropouts.
Blackledge was a foster child who faced many of the struggles that students in Penberthy’s school do – shuffled between homes, a negative attitude toward school, tipping heavily toward dropping out.
Then she met a no-nonsense nun in Catholic school: Sister Peter.
“I call her my nun,” she said. “That changed my world. When I look at those of us who’ve made it, overcome and been resilient, I hear the same story over and over again. There was a coach, there was a mentor, there was a teacher … There was somebody who expected more from you than you expected from yourself.”
Educators talk about the transformative possibilities of such relationships. They also, however, note that class sizes for many teachers in Spokane can range more than 25 students, and the number of students who might need such a personal, committed relationship is high.
“The system does not have the capacity to respond to the need,” Turner said.
Turner said that an estimated 75 percent of children experiencing some form of trauma are not involved in a formal system or getting any professional help. But almost all of them are going to school.
“That really puts educators in a place where they can have an impact,” she said.
Beyond the subject of resources are questions about teacher training and focus. Stacy Loudermilk, manager of early learning and child care for Spokane Public Schools, said most teachers aren’t trained to spot a student who’s showing up with problems at home – and, while some problems are apparent, many are not.
“Teachers going to teacher training don’t get very well-grounded in child development or in the social issues that students bring to school,” she said. “It is hard, but it’s not impossible to at least begin to have relationships with kids. … and ask yourself, ‘Gee, was there something else going on with this kid?’ “
Many educators said that the emphasis in recent years on testing and statistical accountability has focused teachers to such a degree on “meeting standards” that there’s less time and ability to step aside and deal with any one student’s problems.
“I think teachers have for the last several years been very focused on academic success and getting kids to standard,” Loudermilk said. “That’s really been the pressure on school districts for a number of years.”
Traumatized students present different challenges at different stages of the system. Loudermilk and other early-childhood workers have been focused for years on trying to intervene ever earlier, as research highlights the fact that many students enter the school system already behind their peers in many key cognitive and social areas.
The Spokane school district is implementing all-day kindergarten in its lowest-income elementary schools, as part of a statewide project. Before- and after-school programs help give children more time in a safe, supportive environment and help schools form stronger bonds with parents. Districts have also expanded pre-kindergarten and day-care programs in recent years.
Once a troubled child enters adolescence, the potential problems become more complex, counselors say. Drugs and alcohol may enter the picture, and defiance can put students on a collision course with teachers and zero-tolerance-style disciplinary policies.
“I know in the transition from eighth to ninth grade, we lose a lot of kids,” said Kitty Hennessey, a counselor at Chase Middle School.
Truancy starts surfacing as a big issue at this age, and area schools have been developing a different approach to that problem. Modeled on a system at West Valley, the Spokane district has developed truancy boards – committees of educators and community members who meet with truant students and parents, and develop plans to get them back into school. The committees are a last step before students land in juvenile truancy court, and officials say it’s working.
Among students who went through the truancy board process in 2006-‘07, the absentee rate dropped from 18.2 percent to 5.6 percent.
“We researched it and found it was really effective,” said Wendy Bleecker, director of student support services for Spokane Public Schools.
Also effective among truants was the expansion of mental-health services through the district, Bleecker said. During the last academic year, among those receiving mental-health care services, truancy rates dropped 63 percent among high schoolers and 44 percent among middle schoolers, she said.
Bleecker said that educators have long known about some of the effects of trauma on childhood learning. She’s hopeful that efforts like Turner’s trauma-sensitive schooling will help schools begin to develop new ways of dealing with the problem.
“It’s something we’ve always known about but not really how to develop strategies in the classroom,” she said. “How do we change what we do in the classroom to meet their needs?”
Justin Sanchez never got the chance to play organized basketball in high school. And so, as he started taking classes to work toward his diploma at Contract-Based Education, he decided maybe it wasn’t too late.
He talked other students into joining and practicing, and they came up with a name: The Underdogs. School officials helped get uniforms, and the Underdogs scheduled games with other alternative schools around the region.
The team has been one handhold on the educational experience for Sanchez, a 20-year-old with an intense manner and a long Van Dyke beard. As a teenager, he needed to work to help support his family – parents and three siblings – in Las Vegas. At 14 he was working with a moving company and mowing lawns.
At 18, after moving to Spokane, he was framing houses.
Still, he never thought he’d stop trying to earn his diploma.
“That’s not me,” he said. “Not at all.”
Turner and other experts say that for kids who are struggling in school, a key way to reconnect them is to find an area of skill or interest – like the Underdogs for Sanchez – and find ways to expand on it. Such a personalized approach is difficult at large, relatively regimented high schools, but it’s the coin of the realm at CBE, which offers different approaches to learning from one-on-one independent study to small-group learning.
“To educate a kid well you have to know a kid well,” Penberthy said. “We’re trying to grow the school, grow the curriculum from the kid out.”
Penberthy is a longtime school administrator and has also been the principal at traditional high schools. He said the high number of kids entering alternative programs in Valley schools – around 1,000 – ought to be a cause for self-examination among traditional high schools.
“What is it you’re doing that’s not connecting?” he said.
CBE is one of 15 programs statewide that earned a Building Bridges grant this year, part of the array of new educational initiatives passed by the state Legislature in 2007.
With the grant, Penberthy and other school officials will begin forming a network among agencies that work with children, from police to mental-health counselors.
In his application, Penberthy wrote that the collaboration would produce new approaches to dropout prevention – and he argued that, despite the best efforts of many, new approaches and more resources are needed.
“Simply offering alternative programs like CBE … is clearly not enough,” the application says. “The Valley Alternative Programs still have an average dropout rate of almost 25 percent and barely a 30 percent extended graduation rate.”
When Penberthy talks about the problems facing his students, the reasons for those statistics become clear: One meth-addicted girl just relapsed. One boy is working in school around his night-shift job. When students come into his office they’re dragging criminal records, domestic violence, parenthood, alcoholism and a host of other problems with them.
“I know when a kid walks into my building, that kid’s had trauma,” Penberthy said. “You talk about a trauma-sensitive school – that’s what I’m doing.”
But he sees kids succeed against those odds. Sanchez has developed an interest in science and horticulture and is talking about going to community college when he earns his diploma. Sweetland said he’s dedicated to earning his diploma.
“The redemptive notion of schooling, in my mind, is that you can turn this around,” Penberthy said.