Breaking the Cycle

In areas with high rates of domestic violence, teachers to get special training

PHOTO: Flickr/jhilldesign1

When children are exposed to violence at home, the aftershocks can ripple into classrooms.

Often on edge and sometimes depressed, those students can struggle to concentrate and control their emotions, causing their grades and relationships to suffer. And with spotty training and limited insight into students’ home lives, teachers can fail to recognize the cause of these problems, much less put a solid plan in place to tackle them.

“Often teachers don’t have the language to talk about this stuff,” said James Waslawski, principal of New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx, a middle school for older students who are behind academically.

He estimates that 90 percent of his students have experienced some form of trauma, the majority of it related to domestic violence. Yet most teachers receive minimal training on how to help students deal with such issues, he added.

“It’s like one-fifth of what they need,” he said.

The city now has a plan to change that. Having identified the neighborhoods with the most reported incidents of domestic violence, trainers will go into the local schools to help teachers spot clues that students might have been exposed to violence, understand how that can affect students, and know what resources are available to them. After they are developed this summer, the three-hour trainings will begin in eight neighborhoods across the city at schools where the education department is already focused on bringing in more mental health and social services.

“This represents a very promising and exciting direction for districts like New York to go in,” said C. Cybele Raver, a vice provost at New York University who has studied how children who watch their parents fight may have trouble regulating their own negative emotions.

The education department is designing the trainings with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, a partnership that grew out of City Hall’s “Children’s Cabinet” — an effort to improve coordination among 20 city agencies and offices that followed the death of an abused four-year-old boy last year. Education officials realized at the cabinet meetings that they could predict which schools are most likely to serve a higher number of students who have witnessed domestic violence, an official explained during a panel discussion at New York University last month.

“They know exactly which ZIP codes and what neighborhoods have the highest report rates and the highest rates of incidents of domestic violence,” said Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office. “So knowing that, probably, the students in those schools are witnessing that type of trauma and that type of domestic violence, we’re working on a professional development plan” for those schools.

The initiative will target these neighborhoods with high rates of domestic violence: Morrisania in the Bronx; Brownsville, Bushwick, and East New York in Brooklyn; East Harlem, Inwood, and Washington Heights in Manhattan; and Port Richmond in Staten Island. It will focus on “community schools” in those areas, or schools that receive extra funding to provide additional social services and mental and physical health care to students and their families.

Nationwide, more than one in nine children are exposed to some type of family violence each year, which can include physical attacks like hitting and choking or psychological violence such as threats, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report. About one in 15 young people are exposed to some sort of physical assault between parents, the report found. Other studies have found that children who witness family violence are more likely to become victims themselves.

“This is a significant issue that has no awareness,” said Brian Martin, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Children of Domestic Violence, which provided free trainings to several hundred education department employees last year. “If you grow up living with domestic violence, that’s childhood domestic violence, and it has a massive impact on the life of that person.”

Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office, said the trainings were targeted to schools in neighborhoods with the most reports of domestic violence.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office, said the trainings will target schools in neighborhoods with the most reports of domestic violence.

Children who are exposed to violence at home are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, according to experts, who note that many children are able to cope with such experiences without showing serious problems. Long-term exposure can also act as a “toxic stress” that disrupts children’s brain development, specifically in the areas of memory, attention, and inhibition control, which are all crucial for learning.

That can lead to lower grades and test scores along with behavior problems as students who feel unsafe at home remain on high alert in school, making them easily distractible and prone to overreaction, experts say. If teachers have not studied the effects of trauma on children, they may not recognize such problems as symptoms of a troubled home life, said Raver, the NYU vice provost.

“They can see behavioral difficulty,” she said, “but have no understanding of where that’s coming from.”

The planned trainings for teachers and other school staffers will include an overview of domestic violence, signs that it is occurring, and how it relates to child abuse. They will also cover violence in teen relationships and the services available to families affected by violence.

David Pelcovitz, a professor of psychology and Jewish education at Yeshiva University, said that educators can play a pivotal role in helping students who are exposed to family violence.

Beside their responsibility to report signs of abuse, teachers can run classrooms that provide a sense of safety and predictability for those students, while also helping boost their self-esteem and self-control. Teachers can also act like “quarterbacks” by coordinating the efforts of school and city employees who interact with those students, Pelcovitz said. The city’s planned trainings could help teachers take on those roles, he added.

“They’re the ones on the front line,” he said. “So it’s on us to be more concrete in giving them the skills to support these kids.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.