Lisa Higuera

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent solely those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Paul 4 years ago4 years ago

    Can Ms. Higuera confirm whether her work "helping parents and students understand their options ... particularly when they are not getting the help they need in school" involved supporting lawyers hired by parents to attend IEP meetings? IEP "sharks" intimidate teachers into providing accommodations that might not be effective and that go beyond teachers' formal duties, certainly compromising personal time and possibly compromising service to other students. The presence of a lawyer makes an IEP meeting … Read More

    Can Ms. Higuera confirm whether her
    work “helping parents and students understand their options … particularly when they are not getting the help they need in school” involved supporting lawyers hired by parents to attend IEP meetings?

    IEP “sharks” intimidate teachers into providing accommodations that might not be effective and that go beyond teachers’ formal duties, certainly compromising personal time and possibly compromising service to other students. The presence of a lawyer makes an IEP meeting adversarial. The teacher, who cannot afford legal representation on her salary, is lucky if a union representative has time to attend. As the weakest party in the room and the only one whose job is at risk, the teacher has no choice but to do what she is told.

    I wish Ms. Higuera well in her graduate social work program, but I hope that she’ll seek some classroom experience (perhaps under a University Internship Credential, with the SB 57 Early Completion Option if she knows enough about teaching and learning) before presenting herself as an expert on solutions for the classroom.

  2. CarolineSF 4 years ago4 years ago

    Ms. Higuera says: "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’ … Read More

    Ms. Higuera says: “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 …”

    With all due respect, these are not issues that teachers should be expected to deal with: pregnant middle-schoolers and kids with unstable home lives should be the responsibility of social workers, medical and psychological professionals, and in the case of a pregnant 7th-grader, police. It’s an indicator of how wrongheaded our thinking is that we expect teachers to deal with it all and bash them when they can’t handle it. (Of course teachers should be supportive, and help find resources when other supports aren’t there, but it’s just wrong to behave as though social ills are all teachers’ responsibility.)

    Replies

    • FloydThursby1941 4 years ago4 years ago

      I agree with Caroline. If SFUSD didn't pay any psychologists/social workers/etc. and cut the bureaucracy, it could require every child starting at age 7 who tests anything but advanced or proficient to spend 5 hours of 1-on-1 time with a tutor. Focus on academics. Let other government agencies focus on other things. Provide free birth control for sure. Pregnancy is 100% preventable. I never worry for a second about … Read More

      I agree with Caroline. If SFUSD didn’t pay any psychologists/social workers/etc. and cut the bureaucracy, it could require every child starting at age 7 who tests anything but advanced or proficient to spend 5 hours of 1-on-1 time with a tutor. Focus on academics. Let other government agencies focus on other things. Provide free birth control for sure. Pregnancy is 100% preventable. I never worry for a second about one of my daughters being pregnant and I’m no prude, I just know science and it’s free, literally free, to be on the pill.

    • Don 4 years ago4 years ago

      Ms. Higuera is obviously well-meaning. The problem with her persuasive essay, beyond what Caroline described, is that it is too facile to conclude "we shouldn't give up", though that might fly in college. When we pay for more and more in-school social services we have get that money from somewhere in the education budget. Somebody has to get less so others can receive these additional services. A good case can be made … Read More

      Ms. Higuera is obviously well-meaning. The problem with her persuasive essay, beyond what Caroline described, is that it is too facile to conclude “we shouldn’t give up”, though that might fly in college. When we pay for more and more in-school social services we have get that money from somewhere in the education budget. Somebody has to get less so others can receive these additional services. A good case can be made that it is almost stealing to give students 3rd, 4th and 5th chances to some students when so many other students are losing their first chance to succeed due to the lost opportunity brought on by underfunding of the vast majority of California’s public schools. To make a case for more services for failing students and completely ignore how to pay for it is no case at all. What about the average kid who doesn’t have any severe problems but just wants to get an education?

  3. FloydThursby1941 4 years ago4 years ago

    In Europe they have tests and some are held back and some advance based on these. They are taken at 12 and 14. You can predict odds of prison or college based on 4th grade reading test scores very accurately. I believe, realistically, a few turn it around after age 10, but if you really want to be a successful college grad or raise one, you have to teach education-focused values … Read More

    In Europe they have tests and some are held back and some advance based on these. They are taken at 12 and 14. You can predict odds of prison or college based on 4th grade reading test scores very accurately. I believe, realistically, a few turn it around after age 10, but if you really want to be a successful college grad or raise one, you have to teach education-focused values at a very young age. You have to read, not watch TV, do supplemental studying, learn to pay attention to teachers and sit still, not get distracted. You have to learn to put learning ahead of TV, play, relaxation. This is why Asians are nearly 4 times as likely to graduate from UCs as whites. You have to teach these values young if you realistically expect to excel in school. Parents make a huge mistake when they think they can let ids drift and suddenly wake up when their child is 13 and get them into college. Odds are against it. Also, this abstinence only thing has to end, if you have a daughter get her on the pill after menstruation. Odds are they won’t have sex for a few years but it isn’t worth the risk. The birth control pill is free and the new generation is much more sexually open minded and secular than the previous one, so all parents should put their kids on birth control as early as possible. Why risk it? If you have kids, you have to be on the ball early. 60% of Asian kids go to Kindergarten knowing reading and math vs. 16% of whites in California. By middle school, they study 13.8 hours a week vs. 5.6 hours for whites. When most whites hear this, they bring up sports, artistic exploration, hiking, creative play, intellectual exploration, instinctively. However, the average kid at this age spends over 40 hours a week watching TV, playing video games and on social media like Instagram. There’s room for 20 hours plus plenty of arts, sports, creative play, etc. Parents have to limit TV, social media and video games. More often than not, you ain’t gonna get a second chance.

  4. Concerned parent 4 years ago4 years ago

    Nice article and good intentions throughout. To really help those who are not mKing the grade, so to speak, do you agree with the following that is about to occur? 1. Looks like at some school districts the students will no longer need to take an exit exam and if, at some districts, students have a "D" grade, and got the right amount of credits, they will walk the stage for their diploma (see Ed source … Read More

    Nice article and good intentions throughout.

    To really help those who are not mKing the grade, so to speak, do you agree with the following that is about to occur?

    1. Looks like at some school districts the students will no longer need to take an exit exam and if, at some districts, students have a “D” grade, and got the right amount of credits, they will walk the stage for their diploma (see Ed source articles on Casee test being immediately, a possibility, of being cancelled for,all of California)…and we got to thank Ed Source in Oakland for being a place all stakeholders can talk about educational issues,,and a place of good, high quality information Gatling and distribution for all!

    anyway, Ms. Higuera, do you like the removal,of a H.S. exit exam for many years?

    will this mean that colleges will be flooded,with,H.S. (go into debt with high self esteem) students?

    2. Do you believe our California needs to continue individual assessments for all students in grades 1-12?

    do you thing sloppy group grades with common core will cover things an inch wide and 5 miles deep and individual student ability of mastery of,subjects will decay with common core and a,lack of individual high stakes testing?

    I suggest you view RAZ KIDS and IXL (on line learning), and you explore,if all the monies governor brown is floating over to schools is going to salaries of people instead of really helping with the intent of what you are passionately writing about.