WALLA WALLA — Washington state stands poised to add up to 16,000 high school seniors to the state’s dropout — and inevitably unemployment — rolls by denying students a diploma.
These students have passed their courses and fulfilled graduation requirements, but they won’t graduate if they fail the algebra or geometry end-of -course exam or the collection of evidence demonstration for 2013.
As the principal at Walla Walla’s Lincoln High School, my advocacy is all about helping every student succeed to his or her full capacity. Also as a high school principal, I believe Washington state rightfully expects students graduating from high school to enter the work force with solid skills and abilities to succeed and compete in today’s job market.
What’s missing from this equation is now-available scientific research on how adverse childhood experiences — traumatic events such as ongoing abuse and neglect — change brain development in some children. This results in what psychologists and neurobiologists call toxic stress. Many of these kids, due to neurological damage, will always have a difficult time grasping abstract concepts — like algebra and geometry.
In order not to punish these children for circumstances far beyond their control, we need to offer a diploma that acknowledges a student’s academic achievements and accomplishments in all areas other than math. There are many students among those 16,000 who have gifts and talents that will serve them well and, if we allow them, will contribute positively to our society.
Just as you and I did, these students will choose career paths that will complement their strengths and allow them the opportunity to enter a career path in which algebra and geometry won’t be necessary to succeed.
I am concerned that the information on adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs) and brain development is not being used to make informed decisions to support our students’ success.
When I grasped that information it changed my professional life and the success rate of my students at Lincoln.
Walla Walla is fortunate to have been provided this information through the efforts of the Children’s Resilience Initiative, founded by Teri Barila and Mark Brown and supported for the last three years by 25 community agencies, partners and organizations who see their work, as I do, “through the lens of ACEs.”
In my own experience as principal at Lincoln, when I understood the impact stress had on a students’ brain development, I realized that I couldn’t blame students for their experiences or for the families into which they were born. This aspect of their lives is outside their and my ability to control.
What I can do is help students understand why they think, act and react the way they do, help them become aware of ways to better manage their behavior, and act as role model mentor in building social/emotional confidence so they can focus on their studies.
Studying brain research taught me that when under stress, students shut down cognitive thinking and revert to the primal brainstem region where survival is the only response, thus the fight, flight or freeze behavior can be a typical. This same brain research also tells us that certain areas of the brain can be affected by childhood trauma, resulting in a neurological disabling condition in certain response systems, such as math proficiency. And this takes me to the heart of my current story.
Make no mistake, the research behind the ACEs and brain development findings is solid and irrefutable. The Centers for Disease Control call it the number one chronic public health epidemic in the United States because of the huge social and health costs resulting from ACEs.
This brings us to the newest required state test — math. For students who have math-proficiency issues, expecting them to pass this exam (or pursue the collection of evidence option) fails to account for this “hidden” disabling condition. It punishes the student who is on track to graduate in all other areas of study and forces this student into a drop-out situation.
Do we really want to see up to 16,000 of the students identified as likely to fail this exam feel forced to drop out of school?
Research already tells us students who drop out of school become dependent upon government services and have a higher risk factor for entering the prison system. Why has the state decided these students, who are on track to graduate and have met every requirement except math, be given the same consequence as the students who do not come to school, have not made an effort and for one reason or another drop out of school long before their graduation year?
This is not about letting kids off the hook. This is about supporting students based on their capacity to perform.
The obvious solution to this situation is to offer a another option for graduation — a differentiated diploma.
Students who meet all requirements and pass all tests would be recognized for their achievements and their diplomas would show they had passed all three required tests. Those students with an ACE-related math proficiency condition would be recognized for their achievements in all other areas of standards except algebra and geometry.
Bear in mind that the exam in question is typically geared for those students planning to proceed on a four-year college track. Let’s applaud those students on that selected track. But let’s also applaud those students who may be choosing a vocational-technical route, a trade job track or military route, where the standard for a four-year college track is not required.
I can tell you that many successful business people and government employees have told me they would be hard pressed to pass the math exam, putting them in the ranks of the “drop-outs.”
The Children’s Resilience Initiative and other groups have worked to make the community aware of ACEs, brain research and resilience. Now we need to get this information into everyone’s hands, particularly the decision-makers and our political representatives who have the power to make policy.
With awareness comes the responsibility to act.
Dr. Robert F. Anda, the CDC lead researcher on this work says: “The public health impact of ACEs can now only be ignored as a matter of conscious choice. Thus, with this information comes the responsibility to use it. I believe it is the need for our society and the systems that operate in it to begin to effectively incorporate knowledge of the neurodevelopment consequences of exposure to ACEs. Washington State has been a leader, and it looks like it is again time for Washington state to be a leader in addressing this issue.”
Jim Sporleder is principal of Lincoln High School. He can be reached at email@example.com
Teri Barila contributed information to the writing of this column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org