STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Even teachers who work with the most traumatized kids lack needed training

Joanne Johnson

Many colleges are making more of an effort to support students who come from foster care. But Professor Angelique Day says that’s way too late for most kids, since half of all kids in foster care don’t even graduate from high school. The graduation rate for kids involved with the juvenile justice system doesn’t look much better. “Resources need to be poured into middle school,” says Day, to ensure a successful transition to high school and then – hopefully – college.

Day says the place to start is training teachers. A high percentage of students involved in the foster care and juvenile justice system end up in alternative education, says Day, yet most alternative-ed teachers don’t receive the training they need to support these students.

Day recently studied teachers and students at an alternative school in Michigan. She looked at kids who were in foster care or in the juvenile justice system. Let’s call those kids “system-involved students.” She found that even teachers at alternative schools are desperate for more training to help them work with traumatized kids. The school where she did her research only serves system-involved students. Not even there were teachers trained to handle trauma.  

In the study, Day and her team interviewed teachers before and after they went through a modified version of this training on trauma-informed strategies to use in the classroom. Teachers found that the training helped them interact with ALL system-involved students – from foster care AND juvenile justice. That just goes to show trauma is trauma.

Many people teaching in alternative ed of course choose to be there. Day says that most teachers who end up working in alternative education didn’t expect to. They aren’t prepared for the kinds of behaviors and issues they face in the classroom. The alternative system leads to high turnover and doesn’t keep careful track of its student outcomes. It’s a system Day says is failing both students and teachers.

Day says alternative education teachers are particularly unprepared, even though they’re the teachers most likely to encounter traumatized kids. Day says there are only two programs in the entire country that teach teachers to work in these settings, neither of which are in Michigan, which has plenty of alternative schools.

Day herself spent time in foster care. She feels lucky she had teachers who gave her what she needed both academically and emotionally when she was in care, but thinks good teachers shouldn’t be a matter of luck. “All students deserve to be in a school where they feel valued and like their teachers care about them,” says Day. Teachers are in a position to be the positive role model these kids need and aren’t getting anywhere else. “You see your [child welfare] worker once a month, you see your teacher every day,” says Day.

Alternative schools may serve lots of system-involved kids, but so does every other school. In general, very few teachers are trained on how to handle trauma.

There are some resources that focus on K-12 education of kids in foster care, like DHHS Education Planners, but there’s not enough of them given the vast number of students in care.

From a policy perspective, Day says she’d like to see the Michigan Department of Education incentivize the use of Title 1 Funds to be used for training teachers to work with traumatized students. Because many schools, particularly those that serve low-income students, are under financial pressure, there are a lot of needs that Title 1 funding could be used for. Day says that’s why incentivizing the use of these funds for trauma training is so important.  Day also suggests adding mandatory trauma training to the teacher certification process.

If we don’t do something, warns Day, we are going to continue to see kids in foster care and the juvenile justice system continue to be over represented in high school dropout statistics. She says the changes need to happen “yesterday."

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