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

How one alternative high school changed from chaotic to caring

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“Have a great day at school! I love you!”

That might sound like a pretty typical send off from a parent as their kid heads to the school bus. At Lincoln Alternative School, it’s what kids hear when they get off the bus, from their principal.

Lincoln wasn't always a welcoming place. Before the "I love you's," the majority of kids at the alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington didn't feel loved. They didn't even feel safe. Lincoln used to be known as a bad school. Students said it was pure chaos, a school no one went to by choice. One teacher called it a zoo.

Lincoln is in the center of a community where police often respond to murders, assaults, drug and gang activity. The crime has had a ripple effect on Lincoln’s campus, where fights used to break out regularly. Teachers couldn’t control their classes. Most students come from a home with little to no support. Some high schoolers were even addicted to meth.

School administrators didn’t know what to do or how to handle the behavior problems. Suspending kids didn't seem to make much of a difference, and neither did anything else they tried.

Finally, Lincoln principal Jim Sporleder attended a conference where he learned about a study that would change the future of Lincoln: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study. Filmmaker James Redford documented what happened next in his film Paper Tigers, which I had the opportunity to watch last week:


Paper Tigers is an intimate look into the lives of selected students at Lincoln High School, an alternative school that specializes in educating traumatized youth. Set amidst the rural community of Walla Walla, WA, the film intimately examines the inspiring promise of Trauma Informed Communities - a movement that is showing great promise in healing youth struggling with the dark legacy of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).

Paper Tigers depicts how Lincoln administrators transformed the school's culture by bringing what they learned about ACEs back to their school.

First, Principal Sporleder helped teachers understand how a child's adverse experiences impacted their behavior. Teachers in turn began teaching students about their own ACE score, which indicates the level of trauma they've experienced. (You can calculate yours here).  

Mindy Nathan, an alternative educator and former school administrator currently working with the Why Collaborative, says this teaching moment was her favorite part of the film. "I think that's critically important to do... we have to teach our kids about trauma," she says. "They need to understand what's happening."

Their brains become wired for survival. After a childhood full of trauma, students can't tell a real tiger from a paper tiger.

In an opening scene in the film, a teacher explains to students that the constant stress during their growth development can cause them to always be on guard. Their brains become wired for survival. After a childhood full of trauma, students can't tell a real tiger from a paper tiger.

This has grave implications for how kids react when threatened with perceived or actual danger, which can bring about all kinds of behavior issues. State of Opportunity has previously reported what can happen when kids bring trauma to school with them: 

Students with a high ACES score are more likely to have lower grade-point averages, reduced graduation rates, and more absences than their peers. Trauma usually masks itself in other ways, though; it’s commonly mistaken for ADHD and often manifests as behavioral problems, such as being disruptive in class. The problem with that is most schools typically assign detention before bothering to screen the student for trauma.

In schools like Lincoln that have adopted trauma-informed strategies (and there aren't many of them), administrators see a consistent radical decrease in the number of suspensions and expulsions. So how does that happen?

The film does a great job of showing how this works, but let me paraphrase: When a kid is sitting in the principal's office after acting out in class, school staff actually have a conversation before bringing discipline in the mix. Instead of automatically dishing out suspension slips, staff asks, "What's going on? What do you need? Let's get to the bottom of this - together." 

This approach wouldn't work in the real world, explains one teacher in the film. On the job, an employer wouldn't just say to an employee, "Let’s talk about what’s going on in your life that led to this inappropriate behavior.” Chances are, they would probably just say,"You're fired."

When kids have a supportive adult in their life that cares about them - even if it's just one - they can have a fresh start.

But using this strategy in schools is worth it, explains the teacher. Researchshows that when kids have a supportive adult in their life that cares about them - even if it's just one - they can have a fresh start. Which is where the "I love you's" come in.

"We have to be far more tolerant, far more accepting, and far more understanding of what's underneath the behaviors we're seeing," says Nathan. "That's not just good for kids who have experienced trauma, it's good for all kids." 

As with any new approach in schools, implementing trauma-informed and restorative justice practices can take time, money, and resources that a lot of districts don’t have. When schools in Michigan are starting off the school year without teachers, opting to transform the way they approach discipline may seem like a lofty goal.

But it's one we've seen work in schoolsbefore, and one that is gaining more attention and momentum on a national level:


There are doctors, researchers, teachers, nurses, social workers and law enforcement officers that are turning the tide against the cycle of trauma and abuse. A movement is rising, one that sees aberrant behavior in children as a symptom rather than a moral failing. This movement asks not what is wrong with our youth, but rather what has happened to them. The paradigm is shifting from punishment and blame to a deeper commitment to understanding and healing the underlying causes of aberrant behavior. With this shifting paradigm comes the promise of great improvements in many of the society’s costly ills: less crime, less illness, less teen pregnancy, abuse, rape, divorce. Simply put, it is cheaper to heal than to punish. Paper Tigers takes a look at what is possible.

Nathan says that Michigan teachers, school administrators, students, legislators, and community members should see Paper Tigers - and start thinking of how to apply it in their own lives.

"It's really a story of our own humanity and our own potential demise if we don't see these young people for how wonderful and for how much they have to contribute to all of us if we can help them along when they need it. Any community member who cares about our future needs to see it." 

You can view upcoming screenings of Paper Tigers here

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