Iowans Thrive Blog
Featuring stories, research, and news on Iowa's movement to respond to ACEs
Dim lights. Three students and a teacher huddled over a textbook. A digital fireplace burning on the white board. Students laughing together before sitting down to work at a table or computer station.
This Flex Academy studio at Hoover High School, one of six at Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS), is centered around creating a calm and supportive environment for students to learn at their own pace. Often the students who attend have failed a class, are missing a lot of school, or are struggling to learn in a traditional classroom. The academy gives them the flexibility to learn online or in the studio with teachers there to guide them.
“I think we over-complicate what we can do to engage students in school,” says Mimi Willoughby, Academic Pathways supervisor at DMPS. “Really it’s a caring environment, a calm space with some flexibility.”
“It’s like a family,” says student Julie Basset. “We all just help each other and it’s really one on one, too, so it’s easier to focus.”
A journey through ACEs science
After viewing the film Paper Tigers featuring a high school that became trauma informed, Mimi reached out to Iowa ACEs 360 to tailor a year-long training for staff. With Iowa ACEs’ support and Mimi’s direction, staff learned about ACEs and brain science, watched the film Resilience, and held discussions.
At first, some staff wanted to gain a better understanding of students’ ACE scores and spend more time delving into what had happened to them. But Mimi directed her team toward a different kind of response:
“I think when we went through the foundational work on ACEs, it was the foundation for understanding the empathy work that we needed to unpack,” she says.
Instead, all staff read the book Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered by Maia Szalavitz and Dr. Bruce Perry. Additional conversations explored how to help students move from stressed brains into learning brains without creating systems that could add trauma to their lives.
The learning process around ACEs continues to be a journey with a lot of professional development so new practices for interacting with students lasts long-term.
“We really try to reduce the stress level of all stakeholders involved and instead of trying to change students, we change our environment,” Mimi says.
Responding to staff needs
In learning about ACEs, Mimi also recognized that her staff needed support to manage their own stress and the stress they carry in working with students in challenging situations. Many students in the Flex Academy struggle to make it to school, because they need to care for younger siblings, work full time, are experiencing health or mental health challenges, or face other difficult situations. A lot of staff development has focused on how to stay present and prepared for the students who show up and worry less over the students who cannot make it at that time.
Teachers are also encouraged to build relationships with students through field trips, like going to a hockey game or a volunteering. Staff even took a group of students to the Mind Matters mental health exhibit at the Science Center of Iowa in spring 2019.
Teachers have also been trained in Mental Health First Aid to recognize and know how to respond to students in a mental health crisis. A grant from the Lady Gaga Born this Way Foundation will now allow students to become trained to recognize signs and symptoms and to help their peers.
Seeing the results
Over time, the Flex Academy’s culture has shifted from understanding the science of trauma and disrupted development, to focusing on whether someone has experienced trauma, to now being more present and supportive no matter what a student has faced or is going through.
“It’s shifted from what’s wrong with you to what’s happened to you, and now we’ve shifted to what can we do to help,” she says.
“They’ll talk to you, get you through whatever you have on your mind,” says Alexis Moreno, a Flex Academy 2018 graduate. “At the end of the day, we’re all here to get one thing done. They do a pretty good job of being teachers. They’re very caring.”
Mimi says more students are graduating and less are dropping out and teacher retention has increased—all while maintaining a high standard of academic achievement. Students are required to complete the same coursework as those in a traditional classroom.
“The mental health of the staff and the students is the foundation before rigor,” she says, “because that’s how you get to rigor.”