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Why West Charlotte High became a trauma informed school

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Updated: Oct. 18, 2018 at 6:16 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Teachers and administrators say when students are exposed to violence – whether at home, in their neighborhoods, in their relationships, or being homeless - it leaves them traumatized.

So the school’s principal is turning West Charlotte High into a trauma informed school. That means if students are acting out, teachers are on the look-out for why.

“Being able to respond in a different way and care for them in a different way and teach them in a different way,” said Dr. Timisha Barnes-Jones. “Understanding and recognizing that they may have some trauma that is manifesting itself in some way in the classroom - so that’s the first step – having them understand what does trauma mean and where does it come from.”

“When kids are acting out in the classroom, it’s about getting to the root cause of why. Why? What is the trigger that could have happened to create the student misbehaving or crying out for help in maybe a way that is a little different than just saying can you help me?”

Dr. Barnes-Jones says teaching is still happening at the school.

“We’re seriously focused on core instruction and moving the dial in college and career readiness for students but we also realize – I realized last year that we kinda hit a plateau in that something was missing that can’t just be business as usual when a student comes in who is acting out or who is traumatized or who is dealing with some trauma,” said Dr Barnes-Jones. “They’re not thinking about math and Science and English. They have some needs that need to be met so it’s about saying I recognize that right now you’re hurting, something is going on and this is not the day for me to try to be business as usual in the classroom and I need to dig a little bit deeper.”

The principal says just last week some kids came to school crying. It turns out a fellow classmate had been shot and killed at a motel.

What were teachers supposed to do?

Dr. Barnes-Jones got on the intercom.

“This can't be business as usual so please feel free to stop. Let's circle up and do a community circle in the classroom and let kids talk about it,” she told WBTV. “Let's talk about it because they're not going to be able to focus on anything else you're doing if in their mind their mind is churning about the death of a friend."

Compared to last year, violent crime is down in Charlotte, but domestic violence is still a big problem.

Teachers say every day, at least one student has needed an ear.

“So it’s about making sure a student in this building has a trusted adult that they can go see, that they can go sit with, that they trust to tell what’s happening. Someone that knows their family, knows their interest and that can help them heal and help them get their mindset back right and ready for learning,” she said.

Dr. Barnes-Jones added, “It’s pretty much a daily activity so we have our teachers stand at the threshold so that you can gauge how are your kids showing up to your classroom. Right at the threshold you can see is Johnny sad today? Is Johnny upset today? Is Johnny in the right mindset to come into the classroom?"

She continued, "That right there, you’re gauging that maybe I need to have a side conversation with Johnny to say, 'you know what’s going on? I can see today that you’re going through a little bit of something. How can I support you through this? How can I help meet your needs so we can get to the learning?'”

The principal says she and her teachers can see the difference being a trauma informed is making.

“We can already see a down-tick in our referrals. We can see a down-tick in our suspensions,” Dr. Barnes-Jones said. “We can see kids are happier. The relationships between students and teachers are more joyful. So it obvious that our intentionality around understanding trauma is making a difference in the school.”

The way they see it at West Charlotte High, progress sometimes means pausing.

“Sometimes you gotta slow down to go forward. You gotta stop because if you just keep hammering, hammering at a kid who is traumatized and dealing with something at home then the relationship is going to be even further damaged because they’re going to act out even further because you’re pushing a button instead of loving them through it, loving them through their pain.”

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