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Lifelines: How One School Is Learning How To Help Students With Trauma

Before the coronavirus pandemic, an alternative school in Rochester was finding new ways to help its students cope with difficult situations.

Bud Carlson Academy is on its way to becoming the first trauma-skilled school in the state.

This story is part of our series Lifelines: Addressing Trauma in the Age of COVID-19

Principal Bryan Kelliher says most of the students enrolled there didn’t succeed in a typical high school environment, and many have experienced childhood trauma.

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“The school now functions for those high anxiety kids,” Kelliher said. “It functions for the students who are at-risk because of home life and moving or homelessness. And I think it functions for some of the students for whom motivation in a big classroom is really difficult.”

Every single faculty member has undergone some kind of trauma-informed training. So that any adult a student comes into contact with at school has at least a base-level understanding of what they might be going through. 

And a lot of these kids are dealing with difficult situations at home. Some have parents who are incarcerated or struggling with a substance use disorder. Others have dealt with homelessness.

“I think it’s really an awareness and a communication style sometimes to help build a culture where you feel good and you feel like you’re not battling with the student, and the student feels they’re not coming in ready to battle,” Kelliher said. “Because the trauma brain is ready to battle. The alarm’s going off at all times, and what doesn’t seem like it should be a threat, it’s going to feel like a threat.”

He says it’s important that teachers at Bud Carlson make their students feel connected and secure so they’re less likely to feel threatened. 

The students have autonomy over how they want to complete their work so they feel like they have some control over their own learning.

These approaches help students build resiliency skills, which are essential in coping with trauma.

Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR

Back in early March, before schools closed in New Hampshire, I was able to visit Bud Carlson and talk with some of the students.

Ari and MacKenzie both had a hard time at nearby Spaulding High School. 

But MacKenzie said, after she transferred to Bud Carlson, things were different. She felt more calm and focused while at school.

“It’s more like a family,” MacKenzie said. “It’s more like we’re all like a team. But sometimes we all get into arguments obviously. We’re teenagers. But over at Spaulding I was always fighting because I felt like I had to explain myself or make people approve of me.”

Ari said since going to Bud Carlson, she’s been able to catch up on her schoolwork so she can graduate on time. And her relationships with her teachers improved.

“A lot of them know why we’re here,” Ari said. “A lot of them know what our at home situations are. It’s just easier to speak to them, because they actually care and they help you a lot.”

As I said, that was in early March, when school still meant school.

Now Bud Carlson students, like students all across the state, are doing their school work from home.

I called up Principal Bryan Kelliher to find out how Bud Carlson Academy is doing its trauma-skilled learning remotely.

“It’s been a lot of phone calls, sometimes all day long, to get students to re-engage, and I think they’ve been looking for it,” Kelliher said. “So it’s a lot of personal one-on-one contact with them knowing that the student needs to feel safe and comfortable in order to be able to learn.”

Kelliher says he spends a lot of time driving too. At least one day a week, he drives around the city to try and track down students who aren’t picking up the phone or getting online to do their work.

“There’s been a couple times when driving to some of the students’ houses, where, you know, I hadn’t really seen where they live, and coming away from it not realizing how difficult their home life likely is, and knowing that where I just left probably was not a place where they were going to be able to access the remote learning from,” Kelliher said.

Many of the students don’t have stable housing. Kelliher has heard of students kicked out of their houses. Some families have had to move from place to place since the school shut down. 

Kelliher said the strong connections teachers have already built with the students has been crucial. If those connections are still strong even with remote learning, it’s one constant the students can rely on.

Ari, one of the students I met in March, says she’s doing okay, though remote learning has been challenging.

“I feel like I get my schoolwork done, but it’s definitely a lot more of a struggle, and it feels like there’s a lot more work than usual,” Ari said. “So it kind of sends me into a panic at times wondering if I’m going to be able to graduate or not because of all the workload I have.”

Ari said it can be hard to stay motivated at home, but her teachers have been helpful with keeping her on track. 

Her advisor sends inspirational texts to her in a group chat with other seniors, and her teachers call her every other day to check in and offer emotional support.

“They make sure I’m okay, because they know I have home problems at times,” Ari said. “So they make sure that I still have a place to be, and they always check in with me to see if I need food. They’re constantly offering to bring over meals for me and supplies to help out. They’re very generous, and I can’t thank them enough for all the things that they are doing for me, and pushing me and helping me strive to where I need to be.”

Even with the challenges of remote learning, Ari said she’s determined to graduate this May.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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