Fort Worth charter school focuses on trauma-informed curriculum. What does that mean?

dfwnewsa | November 27, 2023 | 0 | Dallas News , Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth charter school focuses on trauma-informed curriculum. What does that mean?
Science teacher Catherine Wolfe works with students on a science project Nov. 13, 2023, at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

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Superintendent Stephanie Love’s eyes were glued on her students eating in the cafeteria.

The sixth graders chatted with cafeteria staff while grabbing their lunches. Those who already had food talked or played games with each other on their laptops. Some asked for personal space. 

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Love showed multiplication flashcards to the students. She quizzed them in a tone serious  enough that the students didn’t ignore her but soft enough that they were all engaged. 

It’s a normal day at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, a charter school open to all students that focuses on a trauma-informed curriculum, which Love defines as “focusing on well-being.” 

Editor’s note

This is the second of a three-part series examining how Fort Worth-area schools are caring for students’ mental health.

The academy opened to students this August. The charter school is the only one approved last year by the State Board of Education out of five that applied. In the approved application, the academy detailed various forms of traumatic events students get exposed to daily and how those could impact students’ lives.

The goal of the academy is to help students heal if they have had trauma in their lives, but it also hopes to avoid creating or contributing to trauma, as well. 

In its first year, the charter accepted almost any student who wanted to attend, Love said, and some came with a long list of disciplinary actions they received at other schools. The charter is already seeing behavioral changes in those students based on the structure, she said. 

Nationwide, almost 1 in 5 students between 12 and 17 reported experiencing physical assault, and about 2 in 5 reported witnessing violence, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But not all trauma in a child’s life is so obvious. 

“Sometimes, understanding the broader implications of experience — all of it can constitute trauma depending on how a kid handles it,” Love said. “That’s why we don’t call it trauma. We call it ‘focusing on our well-being,’ so we don’t have a negative stigma because sometimes, things are not their fault.” 

The word “trauma” has a negative connotation, Love said, so she wants to focus on solutions instead: physical, psychological, social, emotional and financial well-being.

Assistant principal Donte Reynolds talks to students Nov. 13, 2023, at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. Reynolds is directly involved in the school’s culture, Superintendent Stephanie Love said. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Social well-being

Often, people disregard conversations about mental health, thinking that they promote fragility and it’s best for students to tough it out. But trauma-informed education is not about being “touchy-feely,” and it’s backed up by research and theory, said Alex Shevrin Venet, a trauma-informed educator and teacher at Vermont State University.

The approach isn’t about lowering expectations or making students avoid emotional topics, Venet said. Instead, it’s about creating a safe environment for students to care for one another and keep down stress about school. 

A functional trauma-informed approach means teachers are present in the hallway, building relationships with students and ensuring they feel supported and encouraged, Love said. 

How to understand trauma-informed practices

Alex Shevrin Venet, a trauma-informed educator and teacher at Vermont State University, identified three angles to assess a school’s trauma-informed approach:

  • How are schools responding to the trauma that students and adults have already experienced?
  • How can schools transform to not be a traumatizing place?
  • How can schools help break cycles of trauma, such as intervening in bullying or helping kids think critically?

Teachers have time to communicate with students because the school has only 151 students, she said.  

Students should learn about emotional intelligence in elementary school, Love said. But her school currently has sixth and seventh graders. She sees middle school as a great time to intervene because students are going through puberty and learning how to handle friendships and relationships.

Teachers are trained by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute to identify and understand the fight, flight and freeze stages of the brain, said Chrystal Sisk, a counselor at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. 

Midway through the semester, Sisk helps the teachers refresh those skills, she said.

The education system typically promotes separating the learning self from the emotional self, but emotions impact the learning, Venet said. 

If students don’t feel safe, it’s really hard to engage in academic learning, she said. 

“When we understand what trauma is, how it impacts people, how it is present across the education systems, we can start to make shifts, so that everybody can access their learning and grow no matter what’s been going on for them,” Venet said.

It doesn’t take a natural disaster or an incident of violence to cause trauma, she said. Instead, living in a stressful situation for a long time can overwhelm people and lead to trauma.

Not all stress is trauma, but people — especially children — should limit their exposure to stress or avoid it, Venet said. 

Psychological well-being

About 64% of U.S. adults reported they had experienced at least one type of adverse childhood experience (ACE) before age 18, and nearly 1 in 6 said they had experienced four or more types of ACEs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Mental health,” as a term, is perceived as negative, too, Love said. 

In daily conversations, she chooses to guide her students toward emotional intelligence, coping skills, self-awareness and social skills, she said. The charter school has a social worker and an assistant principal directly involved in school culture to support its students. 

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Trauma-informed care is about being proactive to ensure students don’t have to be traumatized in the first place, she said. 

Love walked toward a seventh grader who asked about an error that prevented her from viewing test scores. Love apologized. For her, it’s important to fix any damage in a relationship between teachers and students and vice versa. 

“We talk about what we did wrong, and we apologize if necessary — and we try to restore relationships,” she said.

Honesty plays a factor, too. Sisk said students understand the concept of confidentiality. If they share secrets, teachers may ask for permission to share the story with other staff. 

That openness builds trust but also allows other teachers to know why certain students may behave the way they do, she said. 

Superintendent Stephanie Love shows multiplication flashcards to a student on Nov. 13, 2023, at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. (Dang Le | Fort Worth Report)

Emotional well-being

Discipline is different at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.

Handling difficult situations can be as simple as changing the language from “What is wrong with you?” to “What is happening with you?” Researchers described this method as “shifting perspectives.”

“I always tell the kids, ‘You are never in trouble when you’re with me. I don’t hand out the consequences,’” Sisk said. 

Some students at the academy have seen or experienced violence at their previous schools, Love said. They sometimes call the school boring without fighting. 

There is a lot of unlearning to do, she said. 

Many traditional school disciplines, such as suspension, isolation spaces and hands-on restraints, are trauma-inducing, Venet said.  

Students are taught to remove themselves from situations if needed and useother coping skills, Sisk said. They might take a drink of water, sit and cry, or ask for stress-relief fidget toys. 

“They may not talk about it, but then they learn how to self-regulate themselves,” she said. 

A student sits in physical education/cycling teacher Taushena Wesley’s classroom Nov. 13, 2023, at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. Mountain bikes are lined up inside the room. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Physical well-being

Mountain bikes were lined up in the corner of Taushena Wesley’s classroom. 

A physical education/cycling teacher at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, Wesley uses cycling to help students express their thoughts and feelings, she said. She asked them to write out what they wanted to release before hopping on.

A recent study found that bike riding in P.E. may help improve middle schoolers’ mental health. 

“When we’re on the cycle, you can see it in their eyes how everything that they just journaled is just coming out on the cycle,” Wesley said. 

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Students’ notes are taped on the wall outside physical education/cycling teacher Taushena Wesley’s classroom Nov. 13, 2023, at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Love also cares about her students’ food intake. It’s a form of trauma-informed practice, too.

“Sometimes we don’t think about well-being in that way, but if I don’t eat, I get inarticulate. I get moody and grouchy,” she said. 

Love’s school is located in the 76104 ZIP code of Fort Worth, which has the lowest life expectancy in Texas, according to a 2019 study from UT Southwestern.

Love grew up in the neighborhood. She knows what her students are experiencing coming in — the poverty, the hunger, the violence, the trauma. The resources she provides are the same ones she once needed growing up. 

The school does not have a clear pathway yet to address financial well-being, but Love said she’s working on it. Meanwhile, students at the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts receive free breakfast and lunch, she said. 

And, if they want a banana or an apple, they can pick one up any time during the school day. 

Fort Worth Report is part of the Mental Health Parity Collaborative, a group of newsrooms that are covering stories on mental health care access and inequities in the U.S. The partners on this project include The Carter Center, The Center for Public Integrity, and newsrooms in select states across the country.

Dang Le is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at dang.le@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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