The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Introduction: Solving School
Represent staff

In a perfect world, school gives foster youth an escape from turmoil at home. If you don’t look too ragged, if you have a good cover story for why you transferred schools mid-semester and why you don’t look like your parent, if you can hide all traces of mental and physical abuse, then you get to be a normal kid at school.

It doesn’t usually work that way. To succeed in school, youth who are in care or have suffered trauma often need to fight to get the support they need. Johileny Meran is one example. She emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 8 for an operation that went wrong and put her in a wheelchair. She lost her mother to cancer and became homeless. Somehow Johileny persisted and graduated as valedictorian of her high school class.

Part of her success may have been due to her relationship with her mom. After the operation, Johileny’s mom “would buy me puzzles and other school materials to keep me focused on learning and forget my frustration of being in a wheelchair.” Her mother shared her love of learning and also advocated for Johileny to get equal access at school, teaching her daughter a lesson in fighting for her rights.

Johileny also got extra help at her school, which is essential after you’ve experienced loss and trauma. Besides the logistical obstacles foster kids face—switching schools, missing class, having no quiet place to study—their cognitive skills are also strained by trauma. Staying alert to possible danger uses up a lot of your brain.

Selena Garcia, Chris Lee, and Chris R. all struggled miserably in school before getting moved to the right setting and getting their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). For each of them, a caring person at the school helped undo the effects of trauma by listening and encouraging them. Similarly, D. Perry had trouble taking tests, even after she got a tutor and upped her studying. The school made an accommodation for her, similar to an IEP, and she graduated last month.

image by YC-Art Dept

Desmin B., on the other hand, acted out in school and was taken off the roster. This is an example of an illegal practice known as “school push-out,” which can also take the form of suspensions for minor offenses or teachers asking questions like, “Why are you even here?” Desmin, Selena, and Chris R. describe schools bristling with metal detectors, armed guards, bullying, and harsh discipline. No student likes such environments, but for those who’ve experienced trauma, they can stop learning in its tracks.

“Trauma-informed” care is a smart and compassionate approach to therapy, foster care, juvenile justice, and, increasingly, education. Teachers and other staff trained in trauma-informed care recognize signs of trauma such as difficulty concentrating, over-readiness to fight, self-harm, or drug use. They know how to address such symptoms in a way that’s respectful and concerned and won’t re-traumatize a student.

Trauma-informed care advocates like to say “Don’t ask ‘What’s wrong with you?’; instead ask ‘What happened to you?’” Shenandoah Chefalo, a former foster youth, author, and trauma trainer, shares tips for school staff on how to treat foster youth.

For youth in care, the education challenges don’t end with high school. Marlo Scott was drawn in by the slick sales techniques of a for-profit college and ended up owing more money than he should have upon graduation. (But he did graduate, which often doesn’t happen with for-profit schools.) N.M. was arrested at age 16 the night before she left for college; she has been slowly getting her bachelor’s degree while in prison in upstate New York. The resourceful writers in this issue prove that there’s no one way to navigate the educational system. Don’t blame yourself for what’s happened. Instead, get the help you need to make school work for you.

Staff: More on Trauma-Informed Care

This federal report on trauma-informed care explains what it means and how it could be incorporated into more settings, including schools:

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