In 8th grade, I did not understand terms like dropout or school push-out. I didn’t know that there was a vocabulary or a movement to address what I saw in my middle school or high school: a lot of my friends did not graduate with me; life became too complicated for some of my peers and it appeared that school wasn’t providing any solutions to help them in their life or education so they gave up.
I was a fortunate exception. As a first-generation immigrant, I spent the first few years of elementary school struggling to absorb English so I could learn. However, as soon as I could speak English, the Los Angeles Unified School District labeled me highly gifted. But while I attended a highly gifted magnet program in middle school, I watched my peers struggling with lack of support and punitive discipline, in spite of their intelligence and potential.
My good friend became pregnant in 7th grade and, without supports in school, she dropped out that year. Another classmate experienced trauma at home, had to move in with relatives in another city that same year, and also dropped out. He told me that school didn’t feel like a good place for him and that life in the streets was better than school. As far as I knew, neither of my classmates’ issues were addressed by our teachers, and we never saw them again.
I am now a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Working towards my master’s in social work, I am learning that children who struggle with school should not be dismissed as lost causes; there is usually more to the matter and it often involves traumatic experiences. Students who suffer trauma are still children deserving of school support and their right to an education, and there are ways we can help them.
Education in Los Angeles has changed since I was in the K-12 system. In 2013, LAUSD passed the School Climate Bill of Rights and made a commitment to implement restorative justice in its schools by 2020. As a result, schools in the district today can use an effective strategy that assists struggling students, one that tackles behavioral and emotional problems that often push students like these out of school.
Known as Schoolwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, it focuses on creating a positive school climate through interventions that address student behavior, trauma and social emotional skill building. This way of intervening and supporting students deals with issues that affect learning and the educational experience by positively addressing the way students are treated.
Research shows a strong connection between investing in helping students feel connected to school and keeping them from dropping out. Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports can provide schools with strategies that help children stay in school.
Besides my graduate studies at USC, for the past five years I worked with Public Counsel, a legal aid organization that advocates for positive, research-based school climate strategies, like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.
As part of the Education Rights team at Public Counsel, I helped advocate for students like those I knew in high school. By helping parents and students understand their options, the Education Rights team focuses on helping children access education, particularly when they are not getting the help they need in school or have been removed from school through disciplinary actions.
I worked with youth who reminded me of the students whose stories I’ve shared. Students struggle with complex trauma that impacts their behavior in school. As I saw in my middle and high schools, today the unaddressed trauma and resulting behavioral issues often lead to disproportionate discipline in schools, such as suspension and expulsion for students who struggle the most.
However, while these research-based, school-wide approaches have been shown to have remarkable success, not all school districts have access to technical assistance and support to implement these kinds of collaborative interventions.
To address this issue, Public Counsel and partners advocated for funding in this year’s budget for statewide resources and trainings, grants and the creation of a network of trainers to help schools across the state implement strategies such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, restorative justice, trauma-informed practice and to help them build cultural competency skills. The great news is that California’s governor has approved $10 million in the new state budget for this purpose.
It is impossible to go back in time and help the hundreds of students who dropped out from my middle school and high school, students who were supposed to graduate with me but did not. However, I see great potential for helping improve student outcomes from here on out. The governor’s decision to fund this statewide effort is an important step toward implementing equitable, school-wide supports that address the needs of students holistically, in terms of academics and well-being, and to reaching the students who struggle the most as a result of violence, trauma and mental health issues often beyond their control.
Lisa Higuera is a graduate student in the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work and Sol Price School of Public Policy.
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