Atlanta schools tackle pandemic’s mental health toll on students

Jennifer Henn, a co-founder of COR, goes through donated hygiene supplies at The STEAM Academy at Carver on March 3. The nonprofit agency provides students with basic needs and services to students impacted by trauma. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Jennifer Henn, a co-founder of COR, goes through donated hygiene supplies at The STEAM Academy at Carver on March 3. The nonprofit agency provides students with basic needs and services to students impacted by trauma. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

As the coronavirus spread, life grew harder for Cokethia Brooks and her family.

School moved online. Jobs were tough to find. And ongoing housing struggles led to spending the last three months in a two-bed hotel room with five of her children.

“It just seemed like everything disappeared from me,” Brooks said. “Like a storm hitting.”

She found a refuge at her ninth-grade daughter’s school, Carver STEAM Academy. COR, an Atlanta nonprofit, helps students with basic needs and provides mental health support and other services. The agency paid for Brooks’ hotel and is trying to find her a permanent home.

As more students return to schools that closed a year ago, educators increasingly are focused on the psychological as well as academic toll of the pandemic.

The Atlanta school board last month approved a policy underscoring the impact of childhood trauma on brain development. It calls for students in need to receive counseling and other supports.

As in other districts, those services already exist to some extent. But the new guidelines and related ongoing efforts — such as a push to hire more social workers and school psychologists — are priorities in the pandemic era.

“What some people don’t understand is that poverty, abuse, anxiety — those things do show up at school, but they mask themselves as math scores and reading scores,” said Scott Elementary School Principal Langston Longley.

He got a head start on the staff training APS wants to roll out across the district. For a few years now, his team studied how to recognize and respond to trauma.

That groundwork proved useful as some students began returning in late January. Some children missed 60 or more school days since the start of the pandemic.

Longley’s team includes a school counselor and psychologist, a therapist, parent liaison and social and emotional learning coach.

“I know this is school, but we’re just going to be a big therapy center,” he said. “If we are going to uncover a problem you better be prepared to deal with it.”

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APS is considering screening students this fall to check on their well-being and help schools respond to needs.

“We have to work through the psychological trauma that we’ve all experienced,” said Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring, a former middle school counselor. “All of our students have been impacted.”

Before schools closed a year ago, in the Georgia Student Health Survey completed by 725,000 middle and high schoolers, 46% of students said they felt depressed, sad or withdrawn over the past 30 days. And 30% experienced intense anxiety or fears that got in the way of daily activities.

The pandemic may have heighten those feelings for some.

“We have had a lot of kids who have struggled with the pandemic, and more so along the lines of just that isolation, being away from their peers, being away from their teachers,” said Chris Matthews, Fulton County Schools’ assistant superintendent of student services.

At the beginning of the school year, Fulton introduced a “restart” program with lessons on resilience and managing emotions and stress. This year also brought the completion of a long-term initiative to expand partnerships with community mental health providers so all schools now have a therapist on campus.

Facing trauma

Some schools are also paying more attention to the impact of trauma on students.

When Secoriea Turner, an 8-year-old student at KIPP WAYS Primary School, was fatally shot last summer, grief hit hard.

“The whole staff is still grieving this loss and nobody’s together because of the pandemic to support each other, to put a plaque up or plant a tree,” Aviva Birnkrant, the school’s social worker said recently. “We are in such an onslaught of loss. Our teachers are going through this, too.”

She oversees trauma-related practices and training at local KIPP schools, an effort that became a bigger priority over the last year. Staffers are learning how trauma can impact a child’s development and ways it shows up in the classroom, sometimes appearing as an outburst or disobedience.

Amy Bryson, a principal who opened the new KIPP Soul Academy in August, sought to hire teachers who embraced the approach. They concentrated on building relationships even in online classes.

“Middle schoolers are going through so much,” she said. “You just pause all the assumptions, and you just check on people.”

Jennifer Henn, left, and Jennifer Frisco Bartl are two of the three co-founders of COR, an Atlanta nonprofit that assists high school students living in poverty and experiencing trauma. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Jennifer Henn, left, and Jennifer Frisco Bartl are two of the three co-founders of COR, an Atlanta nonprofit that assists high school students living in poverty and experiencing trauma. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Safe space

At Carver STEAM, students living in poverty and experiencing trauma can get help from COR. Co-founder Jennifer Bartl, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said the nonprofit opened its campus doors just months before the pandemic hit.

They wanted to create a safe space where students could talk through problems. COR also runs a food pantry and provides clothing and other essentials to families.

The nonprofit recently won a $100,000 grant to expand its services. Each week, Carver’s freshmen spend most of a literature class with Bartl. She teaches compassion and coping skills to lessen anxiety and stress.

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Recent Carver graduate Daijha Sankey, 19, connected with COR before classes moved online during her senior year and then kept in touch via weekly phone calls. As the first person in her family to go to college, Sankey worried about SATs and college admissions: “I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders.”

Her mother is a single parent, and her brother has special needs. She juggled home and school responsibilities while working several nights a week.

Sankey said a staffer at COR “was the first person that I opened up to” about the pressure she felt.

Bartl wants to build trust with more students and remove barriers that could keep them from graduating. She said those conversations start by turning a seemingly simple question on its head.

Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?” Bartl asks: “What’s happened to you?”