The devastation of New Orleans resulting from the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina was compounded by the waves of trauma that followed due to the mental health fallout, lack of access to health care, lack of housing, and the dismantling of the school system and the mass firing of New Orleans teachers. During that time the city was also experiencing an alarming homicide rate, with a significant number of incidents involving school-aged children. In 2010, New Orleans was one of 15 cities selected to participate in the National Forum for Youth Violence Prevention with the goal of developing comprehensive plans to prevent youth violence using multi-disciplinary partnerships, balanced approaches, and data-driven strategies. In 2013, the City released the NOLA FOR LIFE PLAYbook: Promoting Life for all Youth, a strategic plan for action to prevent youth violence. The PLAYbook was nested within the larger framework of NOLA FOR LIFE, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s comprehensive murder reduction strategy.
During that same time, New Orleans was well on its way to becoming a portfolio school district comprised of autonomous charter schools. Realizing the challenge of coordinating services in a decentralized public school system, Karen DeSalvo, the New Orleans Health Commissioner, assembled a number of community agencies to form the Youth Mental Health workgroup, a subcommittee of the New Orleans Behavioral Health Council. The Youth Mental Health workgroup helped coordinate and provide crisis response and clinical services to schools following student-involved violence and other public-facing traumatic events. Many of these agencies were already providing some level of crisis response and trauma-focused services in schools. They were aware that these services were necessary, but not sufficient, to promote healing and resilience. It was clear to these providers that students were leaving services and going back to school environments with policies and cultures that often did not promote healing or provide opportunities for lasting positive change.
Committed to creating a healing, resilient environment for all students, this group of agencies and individuals, under the leadership of Chris Gunther, Manager of Strategic Initiatives in the New Orleans Health Department, coalesced as the New Orleans Trauma-Informed Schools Learning Collaborative (TIS-LC) in 2014. The multi-agency collaborative included representatives from the New Orleans Health Department, Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, Covenant House, Louisiana Public Health Institute, Mercy Family Center’s Project Fleur-de-lis, Metropolitan Human Services, and Tulane University. The Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies joined the Learning Collaborative in 2015. A representative from NOLA Public Schools joined the Learning Collaborative in 2018.
As described by Chris Gunther in this video, our objective was to educate and inform schools about the critical need for trauma-informed practices, provide support to schools as they transformed school climate to become trauma-informed, and to build schools’ organizational capacity to implement, sustain, and improve the delivery of trauma-informed approaches over time. We leveraged the expertise of our members, researched models being used around the country, and consulted with experts in the field to develop our initial approach to the work. For example, Steve Brown and Patricia Wilcox from the Traumatic Stress Institute were instrumental in helping us develop the content of our trainings as well as the structures and processes to consistently utilize the trainings across schools. Two key resources that guided our work were Helping Traumatized Children Learn: Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach.
By the Spring of 2015, we were ready to recruit a cohort of schools to join our Learning Collaborative so they could learn how to support the use of trauma-informed approaches in their schools. Schools were asked to make a two-year commitment to the Learning Collaborative. Thirteen schools applied and six were selected to join the Learning Collaborative; five schools remained in the learning collaborative for the duration of the project, which is summarized here. Throughout the 2015-16 school year, the schools worked with core members of the Learning Collaborative to train teachers and other staff in trauma-informed approaches, conduct needs assessments, and create trauma-informed action plans. Schools implemented their action plans during the 2016-2017 school year with funding from the Department of Justice and United Way of Southeast Louisiana. Action plans for four schools focused on the adoption of socioemotional learning curricula and/or restorative approaches; one school made plans to revamp schoolwide and classroom discipline policies to be more positive and preventative.
As the 2016–17 school year came to an end, we received funding from United Way of Southeast Louisiana that allowed us to engage in a strategic planning process with the goal of strengthening and expanding our work with an emphasis on racial equity. During the 2017 – 18 school year, pilot schools participated in a training on Trauma-Informed Culturally-Responsive practices presented by Dr. Isaiah Pickens, then at the National Childhood and Traumatic Stress Network. In 2018, we consulted with Beloved Community to conduct trainings for the members of the Learning Collaborative to ensure that our internal processes reflected equity and anti-racism. During the 2018-19 school year, Beloved Community provided consultation to our partner schools to enhance their knowledge and skills in the essential work of racial equity within a trauma-informed framework.
Meanwhile, we recruited a new group of schools in 2016 when the Learning Collaborative and Tulane University were funded by the National Institute of Justice to conduct a rigorous study of the strategies we developed with our pilot schools. The study was designed to determine whether the strategies were effective in helping schools move forward with trauma-informed practices. The study, Safe Schools NOLA (SSNOLA), partnered with 6 additional schools over 4 years (2016-2020) to increase their readiness to implement trauma-informed approaches. Once again we were fortunate to consult with national experts on this project, including Al Farrell at Virginia Commonwealth University on research methods and statistical analyses, Pamela Black at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on curriculum development, and Sarah Owens at the University of Missouri on teacher coaching and consultation.
For an overview of the SSNOLA framework, see here. As indicated in our 2015-2022 Impact Report, SSNOLA offers a promising framework for the effective installation of trauma-informed approaches in schools. Compared to the baseline year, we observed increased educator capacity in their knowledge of and facility with trauma-informed classroom practices to support student well-being. We also observed increased school capacity in school-wide policies and practices supportive of trauma-informed approaches.
Based on the success of SSNOLA, we developed a Training of Trainers (ToT) model for trauma-informed schools. The ToT was developed to build capacity at the charter management and district levels as well as in the school building by providing the tools and training needed to initiate and sustain the work. In partnership with the City of New Orleans, the Learning Collaborative received support from the Department of Justice in 2018 to utilize the ToT in two cohorts of schools over two school years (2019–20; 2020–21). Additional funding from the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, Baptist Community Ministries, and the LoveTruth Foundation allowed us to expand our work to two Jefferson Parish schools (2020–21) and an additional cohort of three New Orleans schools (2022–23). Through ToT we have certified 17 educators/administrators in 5 CMOs and NOLA Public Schools in the trauma-informed schools model. They have gone on to train over 300 educators in trauma-informed approaches. Collectively, those educators teach about 3000 students. An overview of the ToT program can be found here and a more detailed summary of its impact can be found here.
In addition to our trauma-informed schools work, Learning Collaborative members have participated in pivotal initiatives related to childhood trauma in the City, including serving on the New Orleans Childhood Trauma Taskforce, the New Orleans Children and Youth Planning Board, and the Education Workgroup of the New Orleans Behavioral Health Council.
The continuity and commitment of the members of the Learning Collaborative uniquely positioned them to respond in March of 2020 in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. They conducted two educator well-being surveys, one in 2020 and another in 2021, to examine pandemic-related stressors and their impact on educators. They organized several webinars during the summer of 2020 to support school leaders in New Orleans as they planned for the upcoming school year.
In 2021, the Learning Collaborative utilized funding from the United Way of Southeast Louisiana to engage in strategic planning that would set our course for the next five years. We identified four strategic directions to guide our work over the next five years:
- Reexamine our program model to deepen equity practices and explore opportunities to employ systemic approaches for racial and educational equity.
- Develop a strategic communications plan that outlines how we will engage and build accountability with our stakeholders.
- Develop an equitable and inclusive governance and membership structure.
- Develop the long-term infrastructure and financial support required for sustainability.
Another outcome of strategic planning was a name change and rebranding. Realizing the need for a name that more accurately represents the strengths-based nature of our work, we are now the Coalition for Compassionate Schools (CCS). Currently, we are continuing the ToT program as well as spearheading the 2021-22 School Behavioral Health Report and mapping the landscape of trauma-informed, school-based programs and initiatives in New Orleans.