San Diego Unified Transitions Toward a Trauma-Informed School District

Godwin Higa may not be famous, but the San Diego principal has no shortage of fans.

He fields phone calls from admirers from across the country and, at times, even from across the pond. He speaks at conferences far beyond the bounds of City Heights, the rough neighborhood his elementary school calls home.

Higa’s transformation of Cherokee Point Elementary into what’s known as a “trauma-informed school,” where staff members strive to meet the emotional and physical needs of children in addition to their academic needs, has made him one of the most sought-after administrators in San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). Higa credits this approach with reducing suspensions at Cherokee Point from seven in 2008, the year he started, to zero last school year, when 580 students attended.

“To have academic success, it’s really important that the students have an environment that is safe and well-equipped with interventions socially and emotionally,” Higa said. “It’s not all about academics. If the child is not progressing, look at what’s happening to them socially, emotionally.”

Godwin Higa, principal at Cherokee Point Elementary School in San Diego, Calif.
Godwin Higa, principal at Cherokee Point Elementary School in San Diego, Calif.

As Higa continues to spearhead successful trauma practices at Cherokee Point, SDUSD is stepping up efforts to bring a trauma-informed approach across the school district, starting with trauma trainings for staff members at other schools. The state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, inspired the district to make trauma a major focus. The law gives school districts more autonomy over the state funds issued to them and gives districts more money based on the number of vulnerable students they serve, namely English language learners, low-income youth and foster youth. As SDUSD officials held public meetings about how they would put the state funding to use, community members requested that staff members receive trauma awareness training, according to Vanessa Peters, program manager of SDUSD’s Office of Children and Youth in Transition.

“By trauma, we mean any overwhelming personal, cultural, historical, social, and institutional events that result in a loss of physical and emotional safety,” she explained. “Trauma-informed schools create safe classrooms and school campuses where children, families and staff are able to learn, support children and create lasting connections.”

More than 600 district staff members received training in trauma-informed practices last school year, during which they learned about trauma’s effect on the brain, how to help students regulate their emotions and to give youth choices to help them feel more in control of their environment. Staff members will apply these techniques as they interact with children both in and out of the classroom.

Michelle Lustig
Michelle Lustig, manager of the San Diego County Office of Education’s foster youth and homeless education services division. Photo: USC School of Social Work.

“It’s a shift from looking at behavior as the problem to behavior as an information source. It’s a shift from asking, ‘What are you doing?’ to ‘Why are you doing it? It’s a shift from seeing a kid who looks angry and throwing them out of the classroom to waiting for the kid to calm down,” explained Michelle Lustig, manager of the San Diego County Office of Education’s foster youth and homeless education services division. Lustig led some of the trauma trainings SDUSD’s student support staff took part in last school year, with officials from the California Center of Excellence for Trauma Informed Care and a local consultant also providing trainings.

“The plan is to continue to offer overview trainings of trauma-informed practices to district staff in 2015-16, and to have staff trained in trauma- informed practices throughout the district and at all school sites,” Peters said.

School counselors, school nurses and mental health resource center staff will receive specialized trauma-informed training, and SDUSD is identifying district personnel to serve as trauma trainers. Additionally, the entire staff of two schools, Ross Elementary and Hoover High, will receive comprehensive trauma training with the goal of becoming trauma-informed schools like Cherokee Point.

“We will strive to train and to support our staff to understand the adverse effects of trauma on the brain, learning, behavior and relationships,” Peters said. “In becoming trauma-informed, our goal is to promote physical and emotional safety, self-regulation and connection.”

San Diego Unified has committed to becoming a trauma-informed district because school officials recognize the widespread impact of trauma on students, families and staff members, according to Peters.

At Cherokee Point, nearly all students suffer from trauma, Higa said.

“The domestic violence rate is high. The crime rate is high in the mid-city area,” he said. “Students come to us witnessing a shooting, witnessing somebody being stabbed, witnessing gang violence or with [exposure to] child pornography, human trafficking. … Students have been physically and sexually abused. Anything you can name, we probably have students experiencing those things.”

The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which investigated the link between childhood maltreatment and health outcomes later in life, found that when youth endure trauma, they’re more likely to have cognitive impairments, lower language development, substance abuse problems and a host of illnesses, including heart disease, obesity and cancer. A collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, the study took place from 1995 to 1997 and included more than 17,000 HMO patients. Educators have used the results from the study to rethink how they interact with students.

When Higa arrived at Cherokee Point, he’d already adopted the philosophy of teaching to the whole child but didn’t transition the elementary into a trauma-informed community school until the California Endowment chose City Heights as one of the 14 sites of its Building Healthy Communities initiative. The City Heights campaign included the goal of reducing strife in schools, and a team of professors at San Diego State University created a $684,094 pilot project at Cherokee Point called the Wellness and Restorative Practice Partnership that the endowment has funded since 2011. The project aims to improve school climate by employing restorative justice practices such as conflict resolution and talking circles rather than pushing children out of class via suspension and expulsion.

Colette Ingraham
Colette Ingraham, professor at San Diego State University’s Department of Psychology.

Colette Ingraham, a professor in San Diego State’s school psychology program, said that professors didn’t solely rely on research to carry out the wellness partnership but also considered the concerns raised by students, teachers and parents.

As a result, now when a child has an altercation with another student, Higa said, “They’re brought to me and we sit and talk. Students find out what the problem is and articulate with each other to find out what happened. They don’t say the ‘sorry’ word so quickly. They go through the process of searching each other’s hearts.”

Jane Stevens, founder and publisher of ACEs Too High and ACE Connections, applauds Cherokee’s efforts to meet the needs of traumatized children. Such schools may help children heal or, at the very least, find respite in the classroom.

“If you create a system that doesn’t further traumatize them, they’re going to be safe enough to be relaxed psychologically,” Stevens said.

She added that it’s important for schools to take note of the wide range of behaviors traumatized students exhibit. Not all such children are disruptive. Some may put their heads down in class or fall asleep. They may be labeled lazy but not disobedient like children who aggressively act out are.

“Neither kid has the ability to learn unless the school creates an emotionally safe place for a kid to recover and begin to learn that school is very caring,” she said.

Teachers play a critical role in creating a trauma-informed school through changing the school climate by digging deeper when students have bad days. Rather than simply giving students who misbehave referrals to the principal’s office, teachers send Higa notes recommending that he try to meet students’ needs, be they a pair of new shoes or food to take home. Cherokee Point routinely gives students fruit to take home as well as breakfast each morning and periodic medical care.

Teachers focus first and foremost on student wellbeing rather than “get him out of my class. He doesn’t listen to me,” Higa said.

Patty Wallach has taught at Cherokee Point since it opened a decade ago. She recalled that during the school’s early days, teachers wrote up students much more frequently.

“There were a lot more referrals to the counselor and to the principal and to the vice principal,” she said. “I think a lot more kids were sent to the office. Now we’ve had training on restorative practices …where you have the kids talk to each other and help guide them to resolve their differences. We also use classroom circle time where we have classroom meetings. It’s a safe place to get kids talking about how they’re feeling. It saves a lot of time rather than sending the kids to the office.”

Wallach used to teach fifth grade but now works as a resource teacher and interacts with students across grade levels. She said Cherokee Point has changed for the better now that it’s virtually done away with suspensions, a discipline method she doubts works.

“Some people feel like kids need to be punished,” she said. “They feel like they’re not getting consequences for their actions. However, that doesn’t resolve the problem. A lot of times, it doesn’t change the behavior.”

In fact, she said, suspensions may worsen student behavior. Out of school, children may find themselves in dangerous situations on City Heights’ streets. They may spend the duration of their suspension playing video games and falling increasingly behind in school.

The Center for Child and Family at Duke University has outlined a number of ways suspensions prove harmful to students. For instance, students who’ve been suspended are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior and enter the juvenile justice system. Once students have been suspended, their chances of future suspension increase, and instead of regarding out-of-school suspension as a punishment, students perceive the disciplinary measure as a “school-sanctioned holiday.” This finding is particularly troubling, given that suspended students tend to be the children most likely to lack parental supervision at home.

Schools with high suspension rates suffer as well. Teacher-student relationships fill with tension, student attendance rates drop and parents report less satisfaction with such schools.

Wallach said that parents appreciate Cherokee Point in part because Higa organizes workshops and presentations relevant to their lives. The school has offered trauma trainings to parents. Guest speakers have visited the school to educate parents on immigration law. Police officers drop by to assure parents that regardless of their immigration status, they can report crimes such as domestic violence to the authorities. And to accommodate the needs of working parents, Higa makes himself available during off hours—early mornings or evenings.

“The principal has opened doors,” said Alejandra Granados, a Cherokee Point parent leader. “They’re always welcoming. They have time to listen, to help, if you have a problem or concern.”

She’s also thankful that when one of her daughters began acting out, the administration didn’t suspend the child but expressed concern about her behavior. It turned out that a family member was abusing the girl. To protect her daughter’s privacy, Granados is not specifying the kind of abuse. However, she’s grateful that the Cherokee staff noticed that something was “off” with her daughter, who’d attended the school since kindergarten.

Granados said that the trauma trainings Cherokee organized for parents helped her meet her daughter’s needs. The trainings also gave Granados, a mother of four, techniques to help all of her children manage their emotions and resolve conflict. When they’re upset, she tells them to blow into a balloon and exhale. She learned the strategy at Cherokee. To her surprise, her children now offer her similar advice.
“When I get angry, my kids tell me to breathe and let the air go,” she said. “I’m really amazed.”

In addition to trauma awareness, San Diego Unified has shown a growing interest in restorative practices. Last school year, the district limited the number of student offenses that qualify for expulsion from 15 to the five listed in the California Education Code: possessing a gun or an explosive, brandishing a knife, selling narcotics or sexual assault. It also piloted restorative justice programs at seven schools, including San Diego High School.

When youth not only have adverse childhood experiences but also find themselves suspended or expelled from school, they sometimes resort to self-harm. A two-decade study about children and suicide published in JAMA Pediatrics in May posited that punitive school discipline policies might be a contributing factor to the spike in suicides among black children between the ages of 5 and 11. Children of color face disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates.

Saving lives remains the top reason Higa wants to foster a positive and youth-centered environment at Cherokee Point.

“When we do not treat students with respect, some kill themselves,” he said. “We don’t want to be part of that. Our job is to give these kids hope.”

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.

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