Chill-out rooms, trauma training, and more

As community schools gear up, coordinators build their contact networks. One focus is on sustainability.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Janelle Harper knew that South Philadelphia High’s new “chill-out room” was working before the paint was even dry. “A student came by and said, ‘I need a reset!’” Harper said. “So I told her to grab a paintbrush, and I said, ‘What happened?’”

The student said she had gotten in trouble for answering her phone in class – hardly unusual, but Harper suspected that there was more to the story. Once a therapist for SPHS students through the city’s community behavioral health system, Harper is now the school’s community schools coordinator, working through the Mayor’s Office of Education.

She knows that when students break rules or act out, it can be a sign of deeper stress, and even trauma. Harper soon found out that she’d guessed right.

“It turned out that her brother had just been shot,” Harper said. “And the person who called was the same one who’d told her that her brother was murdered. So when she gets a phone call from that person, it automatically triggers her. She’s not thinking, ‘I’m in class, I can’t answer.’ It’s an emergency.”

After a little time painting and talking in South Philly’s “Ram Reset Room” – a sunny corner space named for the school mascot with a few tables, some yoga mats, a computer, and a view of miles of rowhouses – the student relaxed and went back to class.

No trip to the dean’s office needed and no disciplinary action. That may seem like a modest achievement. But it represents one of the core goals of Mayor Kenney’s community schools initiative: to use trauma-informed techniques to keep students’ little problems from mushrooming into big ones.

“South Philadelphia is really leading this,” and not just with its reset room, said Susan Gobreski, director of the city’s community schools initiative. Through staff and partners, South Philly now offers a growing suite of trauma-informed services: workshops and training for parents and staff, “mindfulness classes” where students learn to defuse stress, counseling and therapy for the neediest, and even help with insurance issues.

This is the kind of “synergy” that Gobreski hopes to soon see in community schools citywide. After almost two years, time that has largely been dominated by needs assessments and planning, she said, programs like South Philly’s are just beginning to take shape. But over the next few years, Gobreski hopes to see a host of comprehensive school-based efforts with solid, sustainable community roots.

“You’re more likely to take a stress workshop if you trust the people,” she said. “Maintaining the stability of the effort is incredibly important.”

A holistic approach

Experts agree: Wherever poverty is pervasive, so is student stress and anxiety. Schools can’t handle trauma piecemeal in cities like Philadelphia.

“More and more studies suggest that a holistic approach has to be taken,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, director of K-12 policy at Public Citizens for Children & Youth. “Kids come in with everything that’s weighing on them; schools have to take that into account.”

Practitioners also agree that the challenge for the Mayor’s Office won’t just be to organize initiatives, but to sustain them.

“We need people to know they can trust us,” said Natalie Dallard of the Joseph J. Peters Institute, which is providing trauma counseling at another community school, Gideon Elementary. “[With] so many grants, the people come in, the grant ends, and then you don’t hear from them again.”

Dallard’s project is a good example of the way things are developing. Last year, the Peters Institute independently teamed up with a community group called SMASH – Strawberry Mansion Sanctuary for Hope – to win a state grant to bring trauma-related services to the violence-plagued North Philadelphia neighborhood. The Peters Institute staff soon met the mayor’s community schools staff at a Gideon meeting, which led to a “referral pathway,” through which a handful of Gideon students now get counseling at a neighborhood church.

Dallard hopes to eventually expand the Peters Institute’s reach, and she’d like to see Gideon get the kind of in-school programming now offered at South Philly: trauma training for staff and mindfulness classes for students. She’s encouraged by the growing collaboration she sees.

“Every time I go to one thing, I meet another person and another,” she said. “We’re able to connect with good people who want to do this work.”

Can it be sustained?

Colleen McCauley, health director for Public Citizens for Children & Youth, said she too is pleased to see a citywide rise in interest in trauma-related work. She just joined the advisory board of a new Temple University project that will bring trauma-informed initiatives to Bethune Elementary, near Gideon.

“These are the kids who are more at risk for not finishing school, incarceration, becoming parents earlier than they intended to,” she said. But, like Dallard, she worries about sustainability. One of PCCY’s own mental-health initiatives stalled years ago for lack of funding.

Collaboration among agencies and nonprofits can help provide basic services, she said, but tapping into public and private health insurance is the key to reliably providing specialized counseling and therapy.

“A nut we’ve not been able to crack around Medicaid and behavioral health is, you need to have a diagnosis,” McCauley said. “We haven’t figured out how to reimburse for prevention.”

Gobreski knows that issue well: “Connecting families to their insurance” is one of her office’s key goals, she said, along with increasing schools’ connections to city services and building up their partnership networks. And although no two schools will have exactly the same offerings, Gobreski said, within the next two years, she’d like to see all 12 community schools develop a “tiered” range of services and resources: chill-out rooms and mindfulness classes, trained staff and counselors, weekend workshops and health screening, and targeted interventions for the neediest students.

The Mayor’s Office of Education will be working on everything from the big plans to the little things, Gobreski said: “We just got a grant of a bunch of yoga mats.” And meanwhile, community school coordinators at individual schools will be working on their own initiatives.

At Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, coordinator Regina Young has her own “chill-out room” almost ready to go, helped by a grant from Cigna Health Insurance. “It’s going to be so amazing. I’m so excited,” said Young, standing in a bright, empty room that will soon be stocked with comfortable furniture and computers for working or relaxing to music. “I need to see this room being utilized by people who are in need,” she said. “If that means listening to smooth sounds, or doing yoga, or creating art – as long as they can figure out the best way to recalibrate, de-escalate, and refocus.”