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How one St. Paul elementary school is building a trauma-informed learning environment

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
A few years ago, staff and leadership at Bruce Vento began investing heavily in trauma-informed methods of student support in the hopes that students would make more significant academic gains once their basic human needs were addressed.

On Nov. 9, educators at Bruce Vento Elementary in St. Paul fielded an onslaught of tough questions from students. Some wanted to know if they would be sent away, or if their parents would be sent away. Others were trying to make sense of the wall, wondering if Donald Trump intended to build a wall between black and white people. And at least one student raised the concern that black people would be forced into slavery.

This list of post-election inquiries from students in a public preK-5 school may sound hyperbolic. But to these children — who are trying to make sense of adult conversations and news clips at home — asking questions of this magnitude isn’t an attempt at seeking attention. It’s simply an attempt to brace themselves for, potentially, yet another wave of adverse circumstances. The vast majority of students at Bruce Vento are already living in a state of uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with poverty, coping with things like hunger at home and acts of violence in the communities they fled, along with the communities they now live in.

Recognizing the need to assure her students that school is a safe, inclusive space, Danelle Imbertson, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, started the day by facilitating a classroom conversation about the election results. “At least half my class started crying,” she said. “It’s very confusing for them, and sad.”

She told them about the limits of the president’s power — as established by a system of checks and balances — and spent time reviewing classroom rituals and routines to reinforce a sense of stability and safety they’d come to expect at school.

They met on the carpet again the next day to continue vetting concerns students had about a Trump presidency. “The main thing is the environment we’ve created means we can talk about anything,” Imbertson said. “The students know the different resources they have here.”

A few years ago, staff and leadership at Bruce Vento began investing heavily in trauma-informed methods of student support in the hopes that students would make more significant academic gains once their basic human needs were addressed. In partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension and various community partners, the school has undergone a drastic transformation both in terms of how the space is utilized and how students’ needs are met through a more holistic approach.

Learning hampered by traumas outside of school

When Principal Scott Masini began working at Bruce Vento in 2013, he says he saw learning happening in the classrooms but it wasn’t being reflected in test scores. So he started cobbling together a better understanding of his student population, using the popular Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study as a reference point. It quickly became apparent that learning, for many students, was being hampered by traumas they’d encountered outside of school. A heightened, and oftentimes persistent, stress level was disrupting their ability to focus in the classroom.

The student population at Bruce Vento is racially diverse, with roughly 53 percent Asian, 35 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, 3 percent white and 2 percent Native American. Slightly more than half of these students are English Language Learners. Nearly 94 percent qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch.

These numbers don’t tell the whole story. Many of these students are impacted by traumatic experiences that run the gamut from having gone without meals at home to having lived in a refugee camp. The example that really struck Masini involves murder stats in the school’s attendance area.

Danelle Imbertson and Bruce Vento Elementary students
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Recognizing the need to assure her students that school is a safe, inclusive space, Danelle Imbertson, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, started the day by facilitating a classroom conversation about the election results.

“There were 32 [murders] in the last eight and a half years,” he said, noting that doesn’t include other crimes like robbery, assault or rape. “These were neighbors, friends and relatives of our students.”

The ramifications of living in an environment like this are huge. In recent years, researchers have found that inner-city residents exposed to violence are showing similar rates of PTSD to combat veterans.

“It put things in perspective for our staff,” Masini said of the murder stats. “We’re starting to look at kids and say, ‘I hear you. I see you, and I like what I see.’ Kids start to internalize that. And when they know they’re loved, the whole culture changes.”

Created places to de-stress

Searching for outside resources that could help support this cultural shift taking shape within the school, Masini connected with Judy Myers, who works with the Children, Youth and Family Consortium branch of University of Minnesota Extension. They secured some initial grant funding through Extension to support a few key projects like the creation of a calming room and a garden. Both serve as a place where students can de-stress, whether it be by connecting with nature or having the space to work through an emotional outburst in private.

Principal Scott Masini
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Principal Scott Masini

“It’s physiologically impossible to learn when you’re in that cortisone state,” Masini said. “What we tried to do is create this trauma-sensitive environment where if a kid is in that state, we have the means to get them in the right state to learn — reducing those cortisone levels.”

Heather Perkl, a literacy intervention specialist who’s in her sixth year at the school, says things used to feel out of control with students routinely running in the hallways, tearing down artwork and disrupting lessons. But since the school community began receiving training on and implementing trauma-sensitive practices, conditions are ripe for more learning to take place.

“I see kids aren’t being triggered as much because expectations are clearer, because they have relationships with adults,” she said. “All the pieces are in place now. With time, they’ll accelerate.”

Mental health services

Now in its third year, the partnership has grown to include over 55 partner organizations, both those affiliated with the U of M and other community organizations. In Masini’s estimates, the school’s partnership with Family Innovations — a private mental health provider serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin — has been the most impactful.

The school currently has three licensed social workers serving about 500 students. Their caseloads are made more manageable by the fact that they can refer students to Family Innovations for mental health services. Family Innovations provides five licensed counselors who are able to offer on-site support for students and meet with parents either at school or at home. Anywhere from 30 to 60 students are being served by Family Innovations at a time. The arrangement doesn’t cost the school anything, since Family Innovations directly bills families’ private insurance or Medicaid.

Given the chronic shortage of school counselors and other student support staff that schools are struggling with statewide, this new mental health services model has the potential to help fill a serious gap in the public education system.

“Other schools want to replicate this model,” Myers said, noting a handful of other district school are already in the process of connecting with Family Innovations.

Michael Carlson, a social worker at Bruce Vento, says his experience with the partnership has been very positive. He doesn’t see it as a threat to his job. Rather, he sees it as an innovative model that’s breaking down barriers to mental health services for disadvantaged students and their families. Not only does the arrangement alleviate the need to find transportation to a private provider, but it also puts the onus on his team to connect students with services that their families might struggle to find on their own.

The longevity of this model, of course, depends in part on how insurance coverage under Obamacare shakes out once Trump takes office. Regardless, the vast majority of the trauma-informed practices that the Bruce Vento community has embraced are sustainable and replicable.

“From what we’ve learned, other schools in the district are doing some of the pieces. We’re not aware of any other school in the district that has this comprehensive approach. It’s replicable, but there’s a caveat — it has to be very organic,” Myers said. “It really has to consider the community context.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/28/2016 - 09:27 am.

    It’s telling

    …and not in a good way, that instead of celebrating a new President, a classroom full of beautiful children has to be reassured that the President-elect isn’t likely to harm them personally because there are limits to his powers. That the issue is even raised is a reflection of the bigotry that infused the Trump campaign, and far too many of Mr. Trump’s supporters.

    As if neighborhood murders and assaults weren’t enough for little kids to try to process.

    Kudos to the Vento staff for adopting a comprehensive and palliative approach. Schools can’t fix the underlying community problems, but they can, in this instance, at least address some of the consequences.

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