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To Turn A School Around, Put Students At The Center

A classroom at Boston's Jeremiah E. Burke High School, the first Massachusetts high school to exit turnaround status (Courtesy of Michael Manning)
A classroom at Boston's Jeremiah E. Burke High School, the first Massachusetts high school to exit turnaround status (Courtesy of Michael Manning)
COMMENTARY

As the only Massachusetts high school ever to exit from state turnaround status, the 500-student Jeremiah E. Burke High School continues to see dramatic academic improvements, including more than doubling the rates of student proficiency in math and English Language Arts, in the face of what at one time seemed like insurmountable odds.

So what made the turnaround possible, in a school with historically high dropout rates, a persistently low graduation rate and multiple years of failing to meet the state’s academic proficiency goals for students?

From Day One of the school improvement effort, beginning in 2010, the Burke sought to identify and address the root causes of previous academic failure: specifically, the past or ongoing trauma and lack of connection to appropriate social supports that their students have experienced — and that research shows can impede academic success.

The Burke staff looked at the data and recognized that about 80 percent of its students had experienced some kind of trauma, including gun violence, homelessness and persistent poverty. So the school set a course not only to make sure the students hit the books, but also to make sure the staff took a close look at the lives they lived.

Some might fear that addressing the needs of the whole child will take away from the focus on academics. The Burke is proof that attending to these needs leads to just the opposite: better academic performance.

The recently released case study, Renaissance at the Jeremiah Burke High School, looks at how a “trauma-sensitive” philosophy and approach led to rapid school improvement. This means the entire school community works to cultivate a culture where all students feel safe, welcomed and supported. A trauma-sensitive school sees addressing the impact of trauma on learning as a central, schoolwide part of its educational mission.

Numerous research studies have shown that traumatic experiences in childhood can diminish concentration and memory, as well as the organizational and language abilities that school success requires. For some students, this can lead to academic struggles, inappropriate conduct in the classroom and difficulty forming relationships.

In a trauma-sensitive school, teachers shift their focus from responding to students’ behavior to understanding what is causing the behavior. At the Burke, school disciplinarians were replaced with engagement counselors, who call students to check on them if they don’t come to school or are having trouble at home. In addition, teachers’ professional development incorporated a focus on collaboration, collective effort, nurturing and teaching the whole child.

And instead of suspending students for problem behavior, the Burke worked with organizations in the community, forging partnerships with social workers and youth development workers to provide appropriate counseling and support services to students in need. Suspensions are now a mere fraction of the 525 recorded in 2009.

Throughout the school year, the Burke’s partners participate in home visits and meetings to review barriers to students’ attendance. They offer supports like tutoring, one-to-one mentoring, college application and financial aid planning assistance, social work and counseling, and coordination with external health care services. Community partners also boost the school’s capacity to give every student a close relationship with a trusted adult.

It’s truly an all-hands-on-deck approach — and it’s been transformative for the Burke High School and its broader community. Faculty and staff members report a metamorphosis from a negative, teacher-directed environment to one that is positive, student-focused, flexible and responsive to student needs. This approach and vision is one that all educators, parents and policymakers can get behind.

Trauma-sensitive strategies will look different at each school, of course. But a shared definition of what it means to support the whole child can help bring educators, parents and policymakers together around a common vision. At the end of the day, the goal is to help schools make the pivot from asking “What can I do to fix this student?” to “What can we do as a community to support all of our students?”

While there are no excuses at the Burke, there is understanding. Until we rid communities of the circumstances that make trauma a common experience in the lives of too many students, this compassionate approach to education -- interwoven with rigorous academics -- is a model we need in order to help all young people succeed.

Laura Perille is the president & CEO of EdVestors, and Chad D’Entremont is the executive director at the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.

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