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Reilly: An Initiative to Improve Health in Schools Puts Trauma Front and Center


A recent initiative from America’s Promise Alliance—an organization best known for its efforts to boost high school graduation rates—supports work with communities to improve health in schools. Addressing trauma will be a major focus of that work, which is backed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and reflects growing interest among funders and nonprofits in this area.

The organization is working on six community-led projects to make schools more healthy. Communities identified their own challenges and proposed solutions. Of the six communities, four are addressing trauma and mental health in schools.

Communities in Crook County, Ore., Jacksonville, Fla., Staten Island, N.Y., and St. Louis, Mo., are working to bring trauma-informed practices and mental health resources to local schools, with support from the alliance’s Every School Healthy initiative that launched late last year. Each community identified challenges themselves and gets $300,000 to put solutions in place.

In Crook County, the nonprofit Better Together Central Oregon and six other community organizations are partnering with the school district. As part of the work, school staff will learn trauma-informed approaches. The organizations also plan to increase the mental health resources schools offer, and engage youth and community voices to reduce the stigma around mental health and promote positive interactions between students and adult educators.

In Jacksonville, the Partnership for Child Health is working with schools and the rest of the community to integrate trauma-informed and child rights-based approaches to improve the health of the whole child. The work is set against a backdrop of a rising murder rate in the city. Of the 100 murders in the last year, about a quarter of the victims were under 21.

In New York, the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness is working with North Shore schools to empower students, parents and faculty to advocate for healthy schools. The approach allows students to lead the work by identifying health disparities in their schools and communities. For this grant, students settled on mental health as an area for schools to improve.

Finally, Alive and Well Communities in St. Louis works to promote trauma-informed practices at an institutional, community and national level. The nonprofit argues that the effects of trauma prevent schools from being environments that support the health and well-being of staff or students.

The emphasis on trauma and mental health didn’t originate with America’s Promise Alliance, said Nico Connolly, the alliance’s director of strategic initiatives and partnerships. It came from students, educators and communities themselves.

The alliance started with an intentionally broad request for proposals that asked communities to come up with ideas to make schools healthier. Poverty, racism and trauma were the most common themes that came out of applications, Connolly said.

To ensure the grants took the voices of those most affected by school culture into account, America’s Promise paid young people to review applications and share their thoughts. “Part of going where young people point you, leads you to trauma-informed care,” Connolly said.

Increasingly, mental health, trauma and its consequences are rising to the attention of community advocates and foundations working in both health and education.

America’s Promise Alliance is best known for its work to increase high school graduation rates. The organization hopes to get national graduation rates, which hover around 84 percent, up to 90 percent by 2020. The nonprofit receives support from the Robert Wood Johnson and Ford foundations, along with several corporate funders, including State Farm, AT&T and Boeing.

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