What does it take to work with high school students who have 3 or more ACES?

This blog entry is a copy of a letter that I give to all applicants who apply for a position at Paladin Academy. In some cases, I never hear from the applicant again, in other cases I receive a series of questions from prospective applicants about school culture and discipline procedures. In most cases, the letter successfully weeds out candidates who would be hard pressed to survive in an educational setting where approximately 250 high needs (or at-risk) students congregate for any number of reasons for nearly 7 hours per day. The fact that they do congregate, lets me know that we are doing something right. The fact that this information scares some educators away may also be an indicator that we are doing something right. :-)


Each staff member at Paladin Academy has a unique set of skills and experiences. Those skills, both the ones shared with others and the ones that are uniquely their own, make a wonderful blend as a team and as a community. Each member of the team understands that their position requires a strong willingness and ability to deal with students who need significant interventions in their life and in their education. One of the demands includes their ability to be professional even when students are rude, disrespectful, angry, depressed, frustrated, happy, ecstatic, homeless, living in poverty, who change their hair color on a weekly or daily basis, who find it attractive to mark their bodies with homemade tattoos and put holes in their lips, tongues, eyebrows, ears, or arms. They are asked to come to work every day as if the negative events of the day before did not happen. If a student cussed out a staff member on Wednesday, the very next day that staff member will greet the student with a good morning. And when ready, the staff member will ask that student to talk with him/her and he/she will share with the student that an apology for his or her language the other day would be appreciated. And even if the student never apologizes, the staff member is respectful, even though the student's behavior does not deserve respect.

These educators, whether teachers or in support roles, are asked to educate students who, in most cases, have no desire to receive an education. There are some students whose only reason for coming to school is because if they do not, they will be sent to jail. In other cases there are students who are only coming to school because they want to hang out with their friends or because they need to utilize our emergency funds because they are living in poverty. There are some students who will come to school because they want their high school diploma, but who will never let on to that fact because they have an image to uphold with their peers.

There are students whose mental health is in question, and some who have diagnosed mental health issues including bipolar (manic-depression), schizophrenia, borderline personalities, and clinical depression, to name a few. The team works with students who have failed in other settings, who have been victims of crimes such as rape, bullying, and incest. Some students will have been the perpetrators of crimes; theft, assault, armed robbery, or they may have been accessories to crimes. There are students who are chemically dependent and those who are in recovery from chemical dependency.

Most of the students are incredibly street wise. In some cases they have been homeless, or are homeless. They may be in, or have been affiliated with, gangs. They may have been witnesses to very extreme situations such as, murders, abuse, repetitive violence, drug use, and drug sales. In some cases, students may have been in situations where they sold sexual favors in exchange for cash or drugs. In short, the students arrive "broken," having very little faith in themselves and those around them. They may not trust, respect, or value Paladin Academy's role in their lives. And yet, they are our students, clients, customers, and they have arrived at Paladin Academy for a purpose. Working at Paladin Academy means accepting an unimaginable task, a task to make a difference through the world of education in the lives of these young adults; a task that, if accomplished, will give these young adults an opportunity to find success beyond the doors of our school; to find employment, advance their education, engage in healthy relationships, and ultimately, positively contribute to society.

In addition to working with students, staff members are asked to support a program that is based on a model of harm-reduction, where one primary tenant of the school, is to meet each student where he/she is at educationally and emotionally regardless of faith, race, beliefs, backgrounds, family situations, sexual orientation, criminal history, and behaviors. They are also be expected to enhance the student's understanding of independent living, learning, social and decision making skills through a project based education model, where students are first guided through a project process in areas of their interest, and then hopefully, learn to guide themselves through a process of inquiry, research, and documentation. These projects will include everything from job and/or housing searches to caring for relatives, to inquiries into political structures and social norms. These projects are supported even when the topic is one in which does not interest the staff member or one in which does not seem academic in nature, with the purpose of building the student's skills in working with others, completing tasks, following a process, and defining their interests.

Over time, Paladin Academy staff members become experts in restorative-justice, as it is applied to the education model of Paladin Academy. The attainment of this expertise is exhausting as staff members are participants while also learning. Their role in the process changes over time as they move from casual observer to facilitator on a daily basis. The role of one staff member will differ from that of his/her peers as each process is defined first and foremost by the student's needs and the student's growth. There are situations where the participation and the role in the process looks completely different than it did the previous time, even though the issue is one that has been experienced before, or one where the student is one with whom they have participated in the process before.

While education is always first and foremost, staff members are also be part of a research based approach to understanding the impacts of interventions in multiple areas of a student's life, from identifying an issue, making referrals to other organizations, and finding solutions to meet basic needs, such as housing and nutrition. In most cases, a staff member's role in the research will be only a portion of the full research that is being done, and hence, he/she is asked to document social and behavior issues without knowing how that information is being used to create interventions through other programs at Paladin Academy or other community partners. Additionally, staff members support the growth of the Paladin Academy model, through student retention goals, student recruitment goals, community education, and replication of the model in various locations and in other programs.

Staff members choose to be employed at Paladin Academy because they believe that the Paladin Academy model has value, that the students with whom they are responsible have value, and because they know that their participation with these students has value. Each staff member is fully aware that the workload is huge, the responsibility tremendous, that every day brings with it new challenges, and yet they choose Paladin Academy, because above all else, they know that it will be worth it.

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