"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.