High School Reform

What happens when a regular high school decides no student is a lost cause?

Trauma-informed education is spreading from alternative high schools to comprehensive ones, and it’s not always an easy fit

A student checks his phone at the start of class. Evidence of a lesson on how to communicate effectively remains on the Hope Academy whiteboard.

SEQUIM, Wash. — Brandan started it. He chucked an orange at Mason, who grabbed it and threw it back across the classroom.

Zak, who’d been in a funk, started laughing. So did the girls, Dustin and Sierra, who’d been doing schoolwork. And Jordan and Brayden, who’d been watching BMX bike videos on their phones, started laughing too.

And then the weirdest thing happened. The adult in this high school classroom, teacher Bridget Shingleton, did not start shouting.

“That’s the nature of this job — one minute you’re talking to a real person, then they’re chucking oranges at each other,” Shingleton said later.

This is Hope Academy, an alternative program for ninth- and 10th-graders at Sequim Senior High School, in the rain shadow of Olympic National Park. The goal is to offer an alternative for kids who struggle in standard classrooms.

Zak, a philosophical sophomore, put it this way: “I have a hard time staying focused and taking orders from people and I have a high temper.” He said he inherited the temper from his father. In a way, he’s right.

In the late 1990s, neuroscientists began to realize that chronic bad behavior is rarely a personal failing of incorrigible youth, but often the result of negative childhood experiences on a developing brain. Researchers say traumatized young people can have difficulty concentrating, struggle to contain anger, and find it hard to connect with and trust others, among other symptoms.

There’s emerging evidence such effects can be reversed. And teachers across the country are trying to do just that, using a pedagogical theory known as trauma-informed education, which calls for muted reactions to misbehavior, direct instruction on interpersonal skills, and strong teacher-student relationships.

The theory has gained traction among alternative schools, and now mainstream educators are beginning to see its value.

Related: A new movement to treat troubled children as ‘sad, not bad’

Teacher Katie Ward speaks to a student about the number of credits he’s earned so far this year. Student growth charts help kids track their progress towards course credit.

Sequim enrolls 950 kids, 86 percent of whom graduate on time. It would have been  easy for educators in this middle class town to feel they were doing well enough. But Principal Shawn Langston was still losing dozens of kids — about 8 percent of Sequim students drop out each year. Last summer, Langston decided he was no longer willing to ignore that loss.

After getting encouragement from Sequim district administrators, attending a “Kids at Hope” workshop in Arizona and reading “Lost at School,” a book on treating misbehavior, Langston began to see the drop outs as lacking skills, not commitment. And skills were something he felt his school could impart.

“Should [these skills] be taught at home? Yes,” Langston said. “Are they being taught at home? No. That’s almost number one in our job now: Provide a place with caring adults who are going to help you be successful.”

Washington has been a leader in trying out the theory that schools are responsible for teaching character. Washington is one of only a few states with officials dedicated to studying and spreading the practice; the Washington Office of Public Instruction “Compassionate Schools” division even produced a handbook on trauma-informed teaching in 2009.

A 2009 study by the Washington Family Policy Council found that counties using such methods in their schools and social services saved $1.4 billion over the decade from 1998 to 2008 by reducing juvenile offenses, teen births and school drop-out rates. Despite that success, funding for the efforts included in the study was cut significantly in 2009 and hasn’t yet been reinstated.

Districts that want to create programs like Hope Academy are now largely on their own to find money and staff. The tight budget meant the teachers who volunteered to run Hope Academy had little additional training.

A Hope student executes a move at the local skate park where many of the Hope students, who call themselves “The Squad” like to spend afternoons and weekends on their BMX bikes.

Still, launching a program seemed plausible here because the teachers planned to apply the trauma-informed education model on a very small scale. Eleven students, all of whom had failed a class the previous year, were given the option of enrolling. They would spend several class periods in the Hope classroom getting social and academic support from Shingleton, teacher Sean O’Mera and teaching aide Terry Barrett. The rest of the day would be spent in “regular” classes.

Most of the students were friends already. They rode their BMX bikes at the skate park. They told stories of late-night movies, fist fights, and stoned or drunken antics. They called themselves “The Squad.” The rest of the students knew them as “the sketchies.”

By mid-October, the Hope teachers were struggling. A funded position for someone to run programs for special populations was unfilled. There was no curriculum and few rules. Students worked “at their own pace,” which meant they rarely worked. Every day felt like barely contained chaos.

“It has been massively challenging,” O’Mera said last fall. “My first reaction is kind of a coach, drill sergeant thing: ‘You’re going to sit here and do this thing and you’re not going to move.’ But with these guys, that just does not work.”

Finding something that did work felt urgent to O’Mera and the other teachers who knew that, untreated, their students would continue to suffer into adulthood. A well-researched measure of the effect of negative childhood experiences, known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scale, has found that adults who’ve had four or more of 10 specific negative childhood experiences are more likely to struggle with addiction, depression and even heart disease. That’s in addition to the behavior issues experienced by many trauma survivors.

Every Hope kid could check off at least four ACEs. None of them lived with two married parents. Many struggled with substance abuse or had caretakers who did. Several have been in the juvenile justice system or had parents who’d been in jail. One had a brother who was getting cancer treatments for a late stage tumor. Another had recently lost his grandfather and lived with a relative he felt didn’t like him. A third had fought with a roommate, a friend of his older brother, and the police had been called. A few were never sure where their next meal was coming from. (Their last names have not been used to protect their privacy.)

Several Hope Academy students walk to the local food bank, which provides breakfast and snack food to the Hope classroom.

And though they hadn’t been taught that the challenges they faced had caused a physical change in their brains, they knew they had been singled out.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re not in a normal class to not disturb the normal classes,” said Austin, who would grow from a gangly 5’ 11” to a muscular 6’ 2” by the end of the school year. “We’re being babysat and that’s why we get to do the things we get to do.”

Experts in trauma-informed education say teenagers should be told how their brains could be affected so they know what it will take to heal. The Sequim school psychologist offered one lesson on the topic, which the kids called “depressing.” The adults worried they’d told the kids they were damaged goods. But not all the students were upset.

“It was actually kind of interesting,” Zak said. “We’re not all the same, but we are in some ways. We think the same things.”

Related: How schools can lower suspension rates and raise graduation rates

The new program did boast one positive sign in its first months: The kids liked their teachers.

“Luckily, I get along with the teachers here,” said Dustin, an athletic sophomore girl.

“They talk to us more,” Brandan agreed. “It makes me feel like they actually care.”

A relationship with a trusted adult is the intervention that’s proven to be the most effective at helping trauma-affected teenagers, according to research. For those without such adults at home, school is their next best chance.

A Hope student pitches in at the school’s agricultural science department. Hope staff have worked hard to get students more involved in areas that interest them, from sports to art to Native culture.

By March, the open position had been filled. With the help of the new teacher, Katie Ward, Hope Academy began to seem organized. Students were learning to contain their outbursts long enough to calm down. And when they couldn’t, there was the “reflection room,” a run-down portable classroom staffed by a Hope teacher, where they could refocus without worrying about punishment. (The room worked so well that it will be used for any student who needs it next year.)

Students had learned how to ask for an extension on schoolwork or for tutoring help and their classroom teachers were responding positively. And students now had access to software and worksheets that allowed them to earn course credits on their own time.

“It’s changed for the better,” said Jordan, a freshman with an artistic streak. “The rules changed. I definitely got more work done.”

So no one was expecting it when the first orange flew through the air that afternoon.

“Brandan,” Shingleton said after a few minutes (and oranges) had passed, “reflection room.” Brandan grinned at her. Shingleton smiled back. Unasked, he picked up some orange peels and tossed them in the wastebasket on his way out.

When Brandan got to the room, he told O’Mera, the teacher on duty, that he’d started the orange fight “to lighten the mood.”

At the start of the period, Zak had stormed in, slammed his stuff to the ground and then slammed a computer keyboard so hard the keys popped off. He breathed deeply, clenched his fists, walked out of the classroom, then back in. He started putting keys back in the keyboard. The room was silent. No one reacted. No one did anything, until Brandan threw an orange and everyone, even Zak, started laughing.

“That is so Brandan,” Shingleton said, “taking care of everybody.”

That Shingleton could recognize Brandan’s errant behavior as caretaking shows that the school had created an environment where adults reliably saw the best in kids, an environment most people get at home.

Related: The difference between being eligible for college and ready for college

One morning in late May, the start of third period found Dustin straightening Sierra’s hair and Brayden “hiding” in the coat closet. It was still an unusual classroom, but there was an air of calm that hadn’t existed earlier. And many students said the program had worked.

Teacher Katie Ward listens to a student, who is laying on some classroom furniture, explain why his day has gone badly. Forging personal relationships with students is a key element of the Hope Academy program.

“I’d probably have gotten suspended way more,” said Jordan, who plans to take his first art class, photography, in the fall.

Jordan can manage complex calculations in his head and solve algebraic equations without writing them down. Nevertheless, he had to drop out of algebra this spring. Staying on task for a full class period remains a challenge.

Like Jordan, many of the Hope students took a few steps forward and a few back.

Austin, however, was a clear win. With the encouragement of his Hope teachers, he went out for the basketball team last winter. Dispensing bits of his coach’s life advice became a favorite pastime. He plans to go out for football in the fall. And he ended the year just half a credit behind on his schoolwork.

“I learned to deal with frustration,” Austin said when asked what changed for him.

Hope students could earn tickets for accomplishing classroom goals and art credits for designing inspirational posters.

But Austin’s father is talking about taking a job in Oklahoma. By Austin’s count, an Oklahoma high school would be his seventh school since he entered kindergarten.

And then there’s Zak. Things outside of school continued to go poorly and he eventually lost faith in the idea that his teachers could change things for him.

He turned 16 on May 9. He dropped out two days later. He told his Hope teachers he was going to pursue his GED.

No one at Sequim High thinks Hope Academy was an unmitigated success. The academic standards were low, the structure lacking. Still, the Hope kids had fewer suspensions, attended more days of school, and earned more credits than they had the year before. Some kids seemed deeply changed. Most will continue to need extra support. Everyone misses Zak.

Principal Langston and teacher Ward are planning to use a structured curriculum for teaching social and emotional skills next year, among other changes.

After much reflection, O’Mera and Shingleton will leave Hope Academy next year; he to teach English, and she to teach health. Barrett, the aide, will begin work on her teaching degree. Langston hopes to hire a new full-time teacher to work with Ward.

“You’ve just got to go really slow,” Langston said of changing a school’s culture or launching a new program. “In the first year, the staff just needs to grasp that all students are capable of success.”

The Hope kids needed to grasp the same thing, their teachers said. Some did.

“It’s more like ‘how to do good in school,’” Mason said of Hope Academy. “Now I know what I’ve got to do: stay on task and work hard.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Lillian Mongeau

Lillian Mongeau is the Engagement Editor and West Coast Bureau Chief. Her future as a writer was not a forgone conclusion, according to her first… See Archive

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