August 6, 2020

A Call From My Old Classroom Got Me Thinking About Trauma-informed Schools

Alieyyah Lewis is an intern with Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.

In April of this year, my phone rang, and I was excited to see a former coworker’s name light up. We had taught together in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) for three years, and I had not heard from them since Christmas. Instead of good news and exciting life updates, my friend let me know that one of our former students had passed away from tragic circumstances earlier that week.

Alieyyah as a teacher standing in front of a white board at the head of a classroom

photo courtesy the author

I spent the next few weeks recharging my old iPhone to scroll through teaching memories, and I realized that my students and I were not new to coping with traumatic experiences. My preparation to become a classroom teacher in Atlanta during Teach For America’s Institute was smooth and built my confidence. However, once I entered the classroom, it became clear that my students had experienced homelessness, food insecurity, gun violence, effects of drugs, teenage pregnancy, and the criminal justice system long before they walked into room 136. 

My students carried their circumstances and their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in their backpacks. In Cleveland, OH, roughly 42.2% of children live below the poverty line. I did not understand why some of my students would sit in the back of the classroom and attempt to play games on the computer. I did not understand why others skipped class in the morning, knowing they would spend the day in the in-school suspension room. 

I did not understand that the decision to avoid work in the classroom could be a coping mechanism for ACEs. I now understand that out of every 30 students, 13 experience stress from three or more ACEs, which triples the chances of a student repeating a grade and makes that student twice as likely to have adverse health outcomes. I needed concrete skills to help my students focus on their academics amidst these challenges.

I wish I had known about the trauma-informed school model, which uses policies, procedures, and practices to resist re-traumatization. I believe this approach is more essential than ever to support cognitive, academic, and social-emotional development.

Even supporters of the trauma-informed school model wrongly assume that states must develop legislation to implement the model. While many states have successfully implemented that model with legislation, it is not required. Local education agencies can conduct research and develop strategies to establish an environment that is supportive of trauma-informed school models. In Ohio, where I taught, the Department of Education provides resources for a sustainable implementation of the trauma-informed model, and nationally, the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative offers guidance on the six elements of school operations involved in building a trauma-informed school.  

COVID-19 has exacerbated the nationwide shortage of school-based mental-health providers. My former students and fellow educators in Cleveland are simultaneously combating ACEs from before the pandemic and the trauma incited by the “new normal,” which is full of uncertainty around reopening plans in the fall. But students and educators need support to monitor and combat ACEs no matter the instructional format. 

Even as schools navigate budget cuts, I encourage leaders, educators, community partners, and families to consider implementation of the trauma-informed school model. I know my students would have benefited during my time in the classroom.


August 5, 2020

Five Strategies for Serving Students with Disabilities: A Visual Primer

As the pandemic rages on, it’s increasingly clear that students with disabilities are not getting the services or educational supports they need. And as educators across the country continue to navigate uncertainty for the fall, it will be easier than ever to let minimum compliance with rules and regulations stand in for the deeper work necessary to serve all students well. 

I want to offer five strategies school leaders can use to ensure they integrate support for students with disabilities into their organizational culture and mission — during the pandemic and beyond. Alongside a series of other toolkits that my colleagues and I have released in recent months (the latest is here), these five strategies provide a starting place for giving all students, including and especially those with disabilities, an opportunity to learn together as part of a community.

The five strategies are available in a new visual one-page PDF

  1. Establish and reinforce adult culture and mindset
  2. Teach and encourage problem-solving in the classroom
  3. Represent students with disabilities in leadership and decision-making
  4. Align data systems to the school’s mission
  5. Know and address students’ contexts 

These strategies are based on my work with dozens of school leaders across the country, in which questions around culture, staffing, and operations inevitably intersect with the school’s approach to special education. These five strategies are not at odds with legal requirements for schools to provide a free appropriate public education, individualized education plans, and least restrictive environments. But they recognize that compliance is not enough. 

I hope more school leaders are able to “zoom out” of the day-to-day minutiae and embed their approach to special education within their school’s wider organizational culture and mission.

Read the new resource here.


July 30, 2020

Reflecting on 10 Years at Bellwether

This is my last week at Bellwether. Next week, I’ll be joining D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education as Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning. As a District of Columbia resident, I’ve long been incredibly proud of my city’s leadership in early childhood. I’m thrilled to work with State Superintendent Hanseul Kang and our exceptional early childhood professionals; schools; and community, health, and advocacy partners to support children, families, and early childhood educators through this current crisis and build an even stronger system going forward. But I’m also sad to leave Bellwether, an organization I’ve helped build over the past decade and whose mission I believe in deeply.

Bellwether was created because its founders knew that achieving the results we seek for all children requires strong organizations, system and policy changes grounded in evidence, and leadership with a deep commitment to equity. We were — and still are — unique in that many organizations focus on one of these areas, but very few work across all of them. 

When I joined in February 2010, I never dreamed that I would be here for over 10 years or that Bellwether would grow from five people to over 60. Bellwether has taught me not just how to be a smart policy wonk but also a strategic advisor and people manager. Through collaborating with scores of early childhood and K-12 clients, I’ve deepened my understanding of the business, operating, policy, and practice challenges facing early childhood and K-12 educators and systems leaders. And I’ve seen first hand some of the most promising strategies and innovations that leaders around the country are putting in place to address those challenges. 

My early days at Bellwether coincided with the first year of the Obama presidency and the trough of the Great Recession. States were eagerly enacting new education policies tied to Race to the Top, Common Core, and expansion of charter schools. There was a great energy around reform and a lot of enthusiasm to try new things. A decade later, much has changed in the economic, political, and education policy landscape. We now face tremendous public health, economic, and political crises that we never expected in 2010.

And many of those who have led change are wondering how to renew momentum in a landscape where other issues dominate public dialogue. Some ideas that pushed education progress over the last two decades appear to have run their course and are ripe for reinvention. At the same time, policymakers, parents, and the public have increasingly recognized the importance of early childhood care and education — and the need to do better by our youngest kids and families. Now, COVID is creating major financial and operational challenges for the early childhood sector, in large part because it amplifies existing flaws in early childhood business models and funding mechanisms that were already broken. 

These are big challenges with no easy answers. But some of the things I’ve learned at Bellwether over the past decade may help leaders chart a course forward: 

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July 29, 2020

5 Recommendations to Make “Learning Pods” More Equitable

Born out of desperation, families across the country are looking outside the school system for safe educational options for their children this fall, often partnering with other families to privately finance small-group learning. These “learning pods,” also referred to as “pandemic pods,” have fomented concerns about equity, since only a fraction of Americans can afford to pay a teacher out-of-pocket. 

But “learning pods” need not be inequitable. With the right blend of volunteerism, leadership, and innovation, learning pods can be a tool for increasing equity while traditional school campuses remain closed to students.

Here’s how:

Ask community spaces to donate meeting facilities

The requirements of social distancing demand more space if all students are to get a full education. Meanwhile, there are churches, temples, community centers, office buildings, and storefronts across the country currently sitting empty, as large gatherings are discouraged, adults work from home, and retailers close up shop. Many of those entities would probably be willing to donate their space to small learning communities at no cost, or in exchange for financial relief on their rent or mortgage payments. 

Expand the pool of potential teachers to enable lower student-teacher ratios

Student-to-teacher ratios are lower today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but still higher than the number of students we might want to share a learning pod in order to minimize public health risks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average number of students per teacher in 2017 was 16. Including the total number of instructional staff brings that ratio down significantly to 11.7. Add in teachers who have retired or left the profession, substitute teachers, students studying to become teachers, Americorps volunteers, and others and there may just be enough to create learning pods of 10 students or fewer. This could create the conditions for personalized instruction on a scale that’s often been dreamed of but never fully realized.

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July 23, 2020

Bellwether Partner Sara Mead to Serve as Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning in DC

Longtime Bellwether Partner and noted early-childhood education expert Sara Mead will leave the organization at the end of this month to become the next Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning in DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).

Staff pictures for Bellwether Education, in Washington, DC, 10-27-2015. Photo by Toby Jorrin.Mead has been a part of Bellwether from its beginning, joining in 2010 as the third official employee. As a partner and the head of our Policy practice, she has advised hundreds of clients and authored dozens of papers examining the impact of various policy levers. 

At OSSE, Mead will help shape the development of the early childhood sector in the city she calls home. Her last day at Bellwether will be July 29th. She begins her new role on August 3rd.

“This is an exciting opportunity for me to directly benefit DC’s youngest learners at a time when early childhood programs and families of young children face unprecedented challenges. My new role will build on work I’ve been doing for 10 years at Bellwether, helping improve outcomes for underserved children,” said Mead. “I’m grateful to have seen the team grow from six to sixty, and know that there are incredible leaders — including Andy Rotherham, Jennifer Schiess, Julie Squire, Allison Crean Davis, Jeff Schulz, and Rebecca Gifford Goldberg — to continue our work on behalf of clients and kids.” 

Partner and co-founder Andy Rotherham added: “Sara was instrumental in building Bellwether into what it is today and is part of its fabric. She’s a wonderful, generous, and caring colleague and while we’re all excited for her, she will be missed in big and small ways.”

Partner Jennifer Schiess will step into the role of practice lead for Bellwether’s policy and evaluation team. A six-year veteran of the team, she’ll oversee Bellwether’s work answering questions of policy. Looking forward, we’ll continue to iterate on how we grow and create impact across the P-20 spectrum as a firm. 

“We have always said that Bellwether is a great place to build a career, learn a lot, and carry that knowledge forward to other positions,” says Bellwether managing partner Mary Kroupa Wells. “While we’re going to miss her deeply, we are absolutely thrilled to see Sara support DC’s youngest residents in this critical role and cannot wait to see the impact she has.” 

For More Information

Alyssa Schwenk
Interim Communications Director, Bellwether Education Partners
alyssa.schwenk@bellwethereducation.org