Chicago Teachers Offer Plan to Better Handle Student Trauma

“Climate and culture to me is everything, because everything has a spirit,” Tara Stamps, an English teacher at Jenner Academy of the Arts, said during an Educators For Excellence event Tuesday night. “Climate and culture is what creates the atmosphere for us to do the critical work of educating minds, educating the hearts and souls of the future.” (Photo courtesy of Educators For Excellence)

Thousands of Chicago Public School students deal with issues stemming from poverty and violence each year, and a group of local teachers are now calling for greater focus on school climate and culture to better support these kids.

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Chicago teachers worked along with Educators For Excellence – a national public school teachers organization with hubs in Chicago and other major cities across the country – to draft “Sounding the Alarm,” a list of recommendations for improving school climate and trauma support throughout CPS.

The report, released Tuesday, argues that issues hampering school climates in Chicago stem directly from challenges students face outside the school, including poverty, homelessness and violence. It also details a four-point plan that prioritizes social and emotional learning and building in-school resources for students while also reaching into the community to connect more with families and other stakeholders.

“Sounding the Alarm” report’s four-step plan.“Sounding the Alarm” report’s four-step plan.

“If we don’t address the trauma that kids are experiencing and then we expect them to learn, we’re setting them up for failure from the beginning,” said Brad Stolbach, an associate professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.

“We don’t believe that people should have to say there’s something wrong with me in order to go and get help,” he said. “Our place is to say, we understand what you’re dealing with and we can provide some support to help you deal with it; not to fix you because there is something wrong with you, but to help you manage what you’re dealing with daily.”

Educators For Excellence was founded in New York City in 2010 and has since received millions of dollars in donations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support its “Teacher Leadership and Policy & Advocacy Programs.”

In drafting “Sounding the Alarm,” a group of 18 Chicago Public School teachers met for 10 weeks earlier this year from January through March – conducting two dozen focus groups filled with more than 300 teachers, administrators, school staff and students – before forming their recommendations.

According to the report, more than 90 percent of teachers surveyed believe building a strong school climate needs to be a district priority. But only 1 in 25 CPS schools offer teacher training to help students deal with trauma, and the district employs only 1 social worker per every 1,200 students.

Read the full report here.

Justina Schlund, the executive director of CPS’ Office of Social & Emotional Learning, said Tuesday the district plans to take the report’s recommendations seriously. CPS currently surveys parents, teachers and students annually to gauge school climate factors – such as supportive environments and effective leaders – and includes that data on individual school websites.

The district is also using federal grant money this year to run a pilot program in eight high schools, according to Schlund, to build “comprehensive school-based” models.

CPS says that program – titled "Healing Trauma Together" – includes teacher trainings on the impact of trauma, child-adult relationships and behavior de-escalation, along with clinicians to provide on-site trauma intervention for students. More than 175 students have received individual or group counseling through HTT thus far. The district plans to expand those services and involve both parents and the community going forward. 

“We know that a lot of our children live with trauma and it affects their ability to learn,” former U.S. Education Secretary and CPS CEO Arne Duncan said in a statement. “No one understands this better than our teachers and we should we do all we can, together, to act on their recommendations.”

This story has been updated.

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson

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