This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Trauma and its effect on learning got a lot of attention in Ferguson last month. Now, experts say, it's time to make similar efforts for young adults from violent communities to boost the nation's college graduation rates.

For a 10 a.m. literature course, the conversation in Jeanie Tietjen's Massachusetts Bay Community College classroom was surprisingly animated. Her students were deep into a discussion about an essay they had read for the week when a uniform-clad campus safety officer walked into the room. Instantly, the students' body language changed.

Though the officer was only there to check that required security notices and safety measures had been posted in the classroom, some students seemed to be in a state of high alert, leaning forward and watching the officer closely. Others slouched down in their seats and completely disengaged.

"The change in that classroom was palpable," says Tietjen, a professor of writing and literature. "But in some ways, it did me a huge favor. We wound up having this amazing conversation about metaphor, police, what they represent to those students, and how that's telegraphed on the page."

"My students were reacting to their experiences with law enforcement," Tietjen continues. "For me, it was one of those moments where a big, complicated idea really became clear. Trauma shapes learning."

Just over 21 million students will attend college in the U.S. this fall, according to the Education Department. And while college-going has expanded rapidly and fairly consistently across all demographic groups for more than a decade, black and Latino students have made the largest enrollment gains. Higher rates of enrollment in college have not been matched, however, by higher graduation rates. While 42.6 percent of white students who entered college for the first time in 2006 graduated by 2011, just 20.5 percent of black students and 29.2 percent of Latinos did the same, according to the most recent federal data.

Some education experts say too many students of color arrive without the necessary academic preparation and then get little to no support from their institutions. Others insist on a need to overhaul remedial education, encourage students to take more classes, or make more courses available online. But the link between trauma and learning has remained notably absent from the college completion debate.

When school leaders do seek to address the impact of trauma on their students, the interventions are usually focused on younger children. "It's very easy for any of us to extend compassion to a 5-year-old," says Christopher Blodgett, a psychologist and director of the Washington State University's Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resiliency (CLEAR) Trauma Center. "But when a 17-year-old ticks us off, disappoints us, makes what seem like clearly bad decisions, it's really hard for a lot of us to go there."

While students of all ages may act out in a classroom because of traumatic experiences, older students exhibit difficulties with focus and decision-making, Blodgett says. As children get older educators and other adults expect more of them in terms of self-control, ability to manage emotions, self-organize and persist through challenges. As children grow into adolescence, we are less tolerant of struggles in these areas and more likely to blame and punish the student. Trauma-exposed teenagers and young adults do not form trusting relationships with adults or develop a sense that they can shape their lives at a time when it's important that they make critical choices for themselves, says Blodgett.

That combination can make trauma-exposed high school and college students less likely to attend school and to graduate.

Blodgett produced the first studies showing that without intervention, exposure to traumatizing experiences and environments can adversely influence how far a person's education will go. It turns out that unaddressed trauma is an even more accurate predictor of educational outcomes than race or income.

With children and teens of color disproportionately growing up in low-income and violence-ridden communities, many experience a piling on that researchers call complex trauma, Blodgett says. The student who saw a shooting on their block or heard gunfire outside their window last night may have also moved three times this year because of their family's financial problems or because dad abuses mom. 

"School failure isn't concentrated in poor communities randomly," said Jaleel K. Abdul-Adil, codirector of the University of Illinois' Urban Youth Trauma Center. "Many kids are absolutely in survival mode. They are thinking, 'I don't care if I graduate college. I need to figure out how to get home safely right now,' or, 'I don't care if I'm in prison in 10 years because I need to eat tonight and get down this block alive this afternoon.' Their teachers may or may not get that."

Sociologist Julia Burdick"“Will at Johns Hopkins University has also found evidence that community and school violence depress student test scores but not grades. Burdick-Will used Chicago Public Schools and police data to examine the grades and standardized test scores of students before and after a violent event in their school or neighborhood.

"Since we know that test scores suffer," Burdick-Will says, "high-stakes testing and heavy reliance on test scores for college admissions decisions puts kids who experience community or school violence at a distinct disadvantage."

In Massachusetts, an effort to create trauma-sensitive K-12 schools is finally coming to fruition after two decades of planning and advocacy. It's happening in such a detailed way that it's not hard to see how any benefits could one day show up in Tietjen's community-college classroom.

Last month, the state Legislature passed a law requiring K-12 public schools to do more to identify kids who have experienced traumatic events and connect them with needed programs and services. Everyone in a school building, from the principal and teachers to the cafeteria workers, will be trained to understand the way that trauma shapes learning and student behavior. Teachers must run their classrooms in ways that account for the effects of trauma on learning. Schools must implement discipline policies that do not simply remove kids who misbehave due to trauma.

Even with that kind of change happening in Massachusetts, resistance to "the soft stuff" remains, says Tim King, president and CEO of Urban Prep, a Chicago-based charter high school that has gained national attention for the share of students it sends to college.

"We are a country of 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps,' " King says. " 'If you work hard enough you can achieve it.' For a lot of people emotions, and painful experiences just don't register as something real or important. At Urban Prep, we are not part of that group."

Urban Prep serves an all-black and Afro-Latino male student body from the city's most violent neighborhoods. Teenagers are admitted via lottery. About 85 percent come from low-income families. King can rattle off the statistics about the tiny share—less than 3 percent—of black boys who in the last five years attended a traditional Chicago public school and ultimately graduated from college. And he is expansive on the subject of Urban Prep's longer school hours, rigorous courses, and extensive teacher-student interaction.

The innovative high school seeks to boost students' social and emotional development, beginning with frank discussions about the particular challenges faced by black men in the United States such as danger they may face from police as well as peers. There are conversations about how to deal with, diffuse, and—when necessary—escape such situations. The school fosters a culture of second chances with consequences—encouraging students to ask for help when they need it and to work hard to achieve the best results and rewards the first time around.

For the last five years, 100 percent of Urban Prep's students have been admitted to four-year colleges. During this same period, 85 percent or more have enrolled. As the first Urban Prep graduates pass the five-year mark in college at the end of this school year, King estimates the share of Urban Prep students who emerge with degrees will sit far ahead of the national 15.6 percent five-year college gradation rate for black males.

"There's no easy way to articulate the relationship between collective community trauma and academic performance," says Tietjen, who is also the director of Massachusetts Bay's Center for Trauma and Learning in Post-Secondary Education. "But what I find at the post-secondary level is that a lot of students have survived all sorts of things. And in becoming resilient people, their academic and social preparation for college have taken hits."

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.

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