By Stacey Craig Riberdy, Program Consultant, NC Resilience and Learning Project
Just a 30 minute drive from the coast, you’ll find yourself in Jones County, North Carolina, a locale that describes itself as “steeped in a farming tradition…[and full of] hardworking, friendly people who care about our neighbors and will welcome you into our communities.” This certainly holds true at Comfort Elementary, a small school surrounded by cotton fields with just one teacher per grade level.
When Ms. Stella Downs became principal of Comfort Elementary in 2018, one of the first things she noticed was the mismatch between its low test scores and its strong teacher practice. Teachers were doing everything they were being asked to do, and doing it as well or better than she’d seen elsewhere, but this wasn’t translating into test scores. She worked to discern the possible reasons for this disparity, but could find nothing that seemed to explain it.
Then when the school and its community flooded just 11 days into the school year after being one of the counties in the state impacted most by Hurricane Florence in 2018, she spent the following weeks assisting families in their survival and recovery efforts, which enabled her to see firsthand how the community experienced trauma and resilience. When she attended a NC Resilience and Learning Project training on trauma and resilience with other principals in her county and several surrounding counties later that winter, a light turned on; “that’s the missing link,” she thought. Within two weeks, she had shared the information with all of her staff, and remembers a number of them crying and saying “that makes sense.” Finally, they had an understanding as to why their work wasn’t translating into higher student test scores, and they had hope that they could do something about it.
Ms. Downs reached out to the Public School Forum of NC, where the NC Resilience and Learning Project is based, and through a Department of Public Instruction School Safety Grant she was able to enroll all of the school’s core teachers in the Project’s online introductory course, called “Creating Trauma-Informed Schools.” Over the course of 10 weeks during Spring 2019, Ms. Downs, the school’s counselor, secretary, and all of its core teachers convened bi-weekly after completing each course chapter online. Facilitated by a Project Coach from the Resilience and Learning Project, these meetings allowed them as a team to discuss what they’d learned and to reflect on its implications for their school. As the weeks went on, teachers talked about their light bulb moments, how common trauma is in childhood, understanding how traumatic stress impacts children’s brains and behaviors, and ways of helping them build resilience and achieve success at school. By the end of the course, they had decided on a series of trauma-informed strategies they wanted to implement for their school, including peace corners and morning meetings with a school-wide Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum. Just as importantly, the teachers had a new perspective on students’ behaviors and needs, which allowed them to have more compassion and build a web of warm, consistent relationships that help children thrive even in difficult circumstances.
When this school year began, parents were invited to see their classroom’s peace corner during open house. And in the weeks following, students in every class from pre-K to 6th were introduced to the corner with the bean bag chair, timers, fidget toys, comforting items, and calming ideas where they could practice cooling down when they needed to regroup before they could re-focus on learning. Teachers found that children as young as pre-K began independently using the peace corner to appropriately and efficiently manage big feelings so they could rejoin the class.
The school year also began with a new “morning meeting” routine for the first fifteen minutes of every day, following announcements. The school chose to use the free SEL “Jesse Lewis Choose Love” curriculum, which centers each lesson on a value such as “gratitude” for children to discuss together, and incorporates related skills such as mindful breathing techniques. Kindergarten teacher Dana Bergeron noticed her students using the “brave breath” technique, without prompting, when feeling overwhelmed and trying to focus. Sixth grade teacher Renee Calderon adapted the morning meeting for her students, watching videos about the Choose Love values and finding that students appreciated journaling their responses. Other teachers as well reported finding themselves and their students becoming more compassionate, patient and positive, better listeners, and benefiting from shared vocabulary for understanding and resolving common classroom issues. Only a few months into the school year, teachers describe seeing a stronger sense of community developing among their students, and seeing students who are more willing to risk honesty and claim responsibility for their actions. Fourth grade teacher Dawn Harper observed one student using concepts taught in morning meeting to push beyond her fears and strive for learning: “I’m going to go ahead and try. If I mess up, I mess up.”
In addition to focusing on school-wide social-emotional learning, another need stood out to Ms. Downs that she realized needed to be addressed in tandem: to be resilient, individuals not only need to experience community, they also need to experience success. Ms. Downs sought training for all teachers and their counselor that has helped them to begin identifying and closing learning gaps in students’ foundational reading skills. The school also came up with a creative way of more precisely targeting students needs. As a small school in a rural county, devising creative solutions out of limited resources is a constant task. Every morning, the school gathers in specialty groups targeting specific areas of learning. Students spread out to join groups across grade level, so that they are matched with support at the level they need to keep taking their individual learning to the next step. These small, accumulated successes Ms. Downs sees making a difference in students’ self-esteem and giving them hope in themselves.
Finally, the school has worked hard to develop community relationships and secure resources for students and families whose needs exceed what the school can provide. Thanks to these efforts, the school can refer children who need therapy in order to heal and thrive. And they have invited the Eastern Mediation Center to begin “Girls in Power” groups, which quickly became popular among girls grades 4-6. “Boys in Power” groups are to start soon. Ms. Downs has been grateful for this community support, acknowledging the at-times overwhelming need, and notes that the more the word gets out about what the school is doing to address trauma and build resilience for its students, the more community organizations are reaching in to help.
Comfort Elementary is excited to be a school on the rise.