In the 2016-2017 school year, my school, Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education, was lucky enough to receive funding from the NoVo Foundation for an SEL grant that would allow us to focus on bringing in mental health professionals to better train our educators to use trauma-informed therapeutic approaches in our school. The results of that work have proven to be positive, effective, and we have seen our impact grow.
First, a bit of background about our school. Our school was founded seven years ago out of necessity when most alternative programs in our county had shut down, and local superintendents recognized that at-risk students needed another option besides traditional schools. The students at my high school are all considered 100% at-risk in a multitude of categories. Most of our students are high-poverty, 33% are homeless, 40% are court-involved and still others face various other challenges.
All of our staff members helped to build this countywide program from the ground up. Everything in our program is an alternative to traditional structures. Students are grouped into teams with advisor/teachers. Students can take in-person interdisciplinary courses, or work through coursework virtually. Our school spaces are collaborative, flexible, and teachers have collaboration time throughout the day. We decided very early on in our program’s development that we were most interested in developing student SEL skills.
At the time we applied for the NoVo Foundation grant, we had encouraging signs that we were moving in the right direction academically, but we also knew that we were receiving more and more students with anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other mental health conditions from stress and trauma. We also realized that many of our tight-knit, committed staff were suffering from “compassion fatigue”. Basically many of our staffers were experiencing secondary stress and trauma from helping so many of our students with their chronic stress and trauma. We realized that the best place to find experts in this work was not from our own teacher-powered community, but in the mental health field. With the help of the NoVo Foundation grant, we sought out a partnership with mental health professionals affiliated with the University of Michigan Depression and Anxiety Center. All of our staff became trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, learned techniques for supporting compassion fatigue in ourselves and among each other and also implemented motivational interviewing—a therapeutic technique that helps individuals find motivation and set goals.
We had started CBT groups led by our counselors in the previous school year, but the grant meant that we could train all our staff in these techniques and build on the popularity and success of what the students from the groups were learning with more students. This year we are extending our CBT learning, and at our weekly staff development time, we are spending time walking through the CBT sessions through a student lens so we know exactly how students engage.
Last year we spent time with a licensed therapist who showed us that compassion fatigue was real and experienced by groups such as us, but also doctors, social workers, and other people in service-centered fields. We worked on calming and de-stressing techniques with ourselves and gained a better understanding of what the warning signs are for burnout among each other. This year we have continued to use what we learned and develop systems to pay attention to our own self-care.
Finally, we also had another trained clinician who worked with us on how motivational interviewing techniques could be a vital part of our work with at-risk youth and developing relationships that would foster movement away from the paralyzing indecision many of our youths find themselves in. We spent time as a staff walking through role-playing scenarios, digging into teacher-student observations, and sharing how these conversations—although lengthy—could initiate student behavior changes. This year we are extending this training by jointly working on motivational interviewing techniques with the juvenile probation officers in our county so we can better understand each other’s work and also center our shared population with the same techniques.
The changes stemming from our work in SEL have linked with our increasing graduation rate, less turnover in our student population, and greater engagement from our staff. This grant was just a beginning for our school and we continue to build on its impact and enhance our students’ ability to succeed. Instead of trepidation, we have contentment and excitement from staff and students about our school!