The St. Louis County Department of Public Health is one of ten agencies in the U.S. to receive a large federal grant to address trauma among youth in low-income areas.
The department will receive about $425,000 a year for four years to operate Project RESTORE, or Reconciliation and Empowerment to Support Tolerance and Race Equity, in partnership with county police, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale and three north County school districts: Hazelwood, University City and Normandy.
Normandy Middle School teacher Passion Bragg said the program launched in January with about 200 seventh graders across the districts. Progress for each cohort of students is tracked on a quarterly basis for four years.
Bragg said the purpose of the project is to reduce disciplinary problems and increase their academic prowess and attendance.
“We are seeing, unfortunately — in all districts — an increase in behavior problems; students that are coming to us that have been exposed to trauma, which sometimes onset mental illness and onset behaviors we are constantly dealing with and working with,” Bragg said.
The students will participate in after-school, mentor and summer programs to help them learn skills that could help them in and outside of school, such as conflict management.
The county public health agency describes the program as a method to “implement and evaluate a series of coordinated, multi-disciplinary interventions tailored for minority, at-risk youth that improve academic, disciplinary and health-related protective factors and reduce risk factors for violent behaviors among participating youth.”
A person from the department was unavailable to speak Tuesday.
For University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, the program will be an opportunity to build on work the district is already doing to address disciplining students.
"We try to intervene before the act happens," Hardin-Bartley said.
But that's not always possible. In those cases, she said, the district uses tools to repair the harm that has been done. For example, in the instance of a fight, the school may bring students together in a "restorative circle" so that kids can assess their actions, how those actions affected others and make adjustments for the future.
Some St. Louis-area schools have made a concerted effort to reduce the use of suspensions as a form of discipline in recent years in favor of other solutions that encourage relaxation and reflection inside school.
Hardin-Bartley said University City schools haven't done away with suspensions altogether. Instead, staff members think critically about how the disciplinary action affects "frequent flyers," students who are repeatedly suspended.
She said she also looks forward to the third-party audit of school policies through the program, calling it a "comprehensive look at the whole climate and culture piece" of disciplining students.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.