After a year of pandemic losses and civil and political unrest, CPS launches new effort to address trauma in students

A $25 million Chicago Public Schools initiative announced Monday aims to “expand” behavioral health teams to all schools by training educators already working there.

Rather than hire more mental health specialists, the “healing-centered framework” makes a three-year commitment to better support students’ mental health by providing training for educators, along with resources for staff and families to support their own wellness.

The goal is for each school to have a behavioral health team responsible for coordinating services and at least one staff member trained in group interventions for topics such as trauma, depression and anger. More schools will also be partnered with community groups that provide relevant services.

“Experiencing trauma is not the result of random chance or individual life choices. Trauma is an equity issue for our students, families and staff who are facing serious challenges in their lives,” CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said.

In the current Chicago Teachers Union contract, the product of an 11-day strike in 2019, CPS committed to phasing in a nurse and social worker in every school every day. This year the district has budgeted for hiring 44 social workers, bringing the total to 536.

Though the district started working on the healing-centered project in 2019 with the Children First Fund and Chicago Beyond, CPS CEO Janice Jackson on Monday said she was glad they could launch now, with so much trauma related to the coronavirus pandemic and civil and political unrest over the past year.

“In order to recover from a year like the one we just experienced, our district must be well,” Jackson said.

In a news release, CPS outlined steps it has already taken this school year, including $1 million on existing programs, training 1,000 staff members in intervention and grief practices and a pilot program to train 30 middle school teachers and 10 counselors in a curriculum with activities to help students build skills for coping with stress.

Funding for the new initiative, which will total $8 million for each of the next three years, is coming from federal COVID-19 relief money along with grants and donations, according to CPS. After that, costs tied to the initiative will be worked into the district’s annual budget.

Chicago Beyond CEO Liz Dozier said that in her former job as principal of Fenger High School, she observed how traumatic experiences can disrupt a student’s academic performance and relationships.

“Healing also allows kids to be kids and to feel empowered to show up in ways that are true and authentic to themselves,” Dozier said.

During a livestreamed video announcing the framework, CPS students from three schools told district leaders what they needed.

A student at Air Force Academy High School said students needed adults to initiate communication more, acknowledge their problems and not push them aside or say there’s nothing to worry about.

A Lane Tech College Prep student said she recently realized that small social interactions have the ability to lift her up and have been her coping mechanism.

“After witnessing my own mental health deteriorating to the point where I personally felt so hopeless ... I was very desperate to heal,” she said.

Even brief exchanges like a friend saying “hi” in the hallway “are the moments that help me heal,” she said. The pandemic taking away that mechanism has been difficult, she said.

“I felt frustrated because I lack diagnosis, I was not given the support system I desperately needed. ... I had difficulty finding resources,” she said. “What I discovered was that I needed validation from adults that I’m going through something that is not just a phase or acting up.”

A Senn High School student said it was also important for schools to be open-minded places where students — some from homes or cultures where mental illness is still taboo — can speak without facing criticism.

“People want to ignore it as much as possible, so creating that open-minded environment in the school setting will more than likely evolve into homes,” she said.

Tali Raviv, a pediatric psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said healing can’t be the work of the mental health staff alone.

“We need to have a better solution than having kids come to my office,” Raviv said, adding that many of the children don’t have access to mental health care in similar settings. “... While trauma happens across race, ethnicity, income, geographic region, it is also true that it is not distributed equitably and structural racism in this country really does determine not only who is more likely to be exposed to trauma, but who is more likely to be given the supports that they need to heal from it.”