A New Hope for Students Battling Poverty - Social Week


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of audiolucistore.

A young boy wanders along the darkened streets of MacArthur Park, one of the most densely populated and under-resourced neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles. He is greeted by a cornucopia of sounds, a familiar latticework of forebodings that have become second nature to him. Gunshots cackling in the distance. Shouts behind doors and the returned flurry of hits landed. The banshee wail of sirens growing and dissolving again into the night.

These noises are normal because this is home. But while he might not immediately flinch, the harsh realities of the neighborhood penetrate deep beneath the boy’s psychological surface.

Poverty is leaving a seemingly irreparable scar in youth across the country, which negatively affects their experience in the classroom. The age-old monster preys on impressionable children–accumulating stressors that create both emotional strife and changes in the brain capable of undermining even the most straightforward lesson plans.

A recent study conducted by LA United officials discovered that eight in ten children who attend high-poverty schools suffered three or more traumatic events in the preceding year alone.

Researchers, who examine affected, untreated children, are beginning to understand the potential of chronic stress to severely alter both chemical and physical structures within the brain. Indiana University professor of neuroscience and psychology Dr. Cara Wellman discovered that traumatic events can cause deficits in a child’s ability to regulate adaptive emotions.

Wellman studied mice to gather more information about the phenomenon. She examined their dendrites, also termed as “microscopic fingers” that would stretch off of each brain cell while receiving information. When the mice were subjected to stimuli that caused chronic stress, these same “fingers” began to retract.

The shrinking effect on dendrites, in many cases, leads to deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex–the part of the brain that solves problems, and therefore plays an instrumental role in the learning process.

School-based therapy arises as an effective combatant to this plague of stressors, but what about when the resources are limited?

Los Angeles is a city that stands at the crux of this issue. It’s the second largest school district in the nation, and more than 80 percent of its students live in poverty. Less than half of all third graders in LA Unified read at grade level. Fast forward to senior year of high school, and over 20 percent of these students are likely to be drop-outs.

Counseling would seem like the natural inclination towards helping regenerate a sense of confidence and security in the children, but recent monetary setbacks are barring the way to progress. Between 2008 and 2013, LA Unified’s state funding was cut by $2.8 billion.

The numbers are staggering: for nearly 800 schools in the district there are only 300 psychiatric social workers. The ratio equates to roughly 2,200 students for every one counselor.

The state of California is taking a new initiative to help send more money to help these schools. LA Unified will receive $332 million more over the next year, bringing their budget to a total of $6.8 billion. However, the amount still places the district, along with California, at the bottom of school funding in the nation.

Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, Calif. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Enter Camino Nuevo–a charter school academy with an unprecedented approach to childcare. One in every four students either receives one-on-one counseling or participates in support groups. They believe that what helps children suffering from stressors of poverty is not far off from what works for veterans returning from war.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy is often employed as a common evidence-based approach, where children narrate incidents and are guided through relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Coping skills are also an essential part of the process.

“One hundred percent of our kids live in very difficult and complicated life situations,” Gloria Delacruz-Quiroz, Director of Mental Health at Camino Nuevo, tells BTR.

“The neighborhoods are crime ridden and there are gangs everywhere. So we put together a team of interns, administrators, and teachers, to educate them in trauma. We can give them options: time outs to relax, we can bring in aids, shoot some basketball–whatever it takes to help a child regroup and get grounded.”

The academy was founded in August of 2000 by Pueblo Nuevo Development, a local nonprofit community development corporation located outside downtown LA. This under-resourced area is mostly home to immigrants from Mexico and Central America with severe economic and social needs.

During the past ten years, Philip Lance has helped residents towards making the community a safer place to live. A thrift store, a worker-owned janitorial company, a non-profit community development corporation, a free clinic, and the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy are some of the organizations that have arisen as a result of his efforts.

Daisy Ruiz, the Associate Director of Development and Communications at Camino Nuevo, believes that the school’s intimate approach towards family involvement is what distinguishes the institution from others.

“We provide a continuum of care that encompasses wraparound services; not just for the student, but as a person, with a complicated past and a family that needs very much to be a part of the present,” Ruiz tells BTR. “At Camino Nuevo we’ll work directly with the parents, offering parent workshops, or even monthly meetings with the principal where questions and problems can be addressed on a personal level over a cup of coffee.”

The school created a system where private counseling service providers–such as the Los Angeles Childhood Development Center and the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services–work alongside onsite staff. The state picks up most of the bill for the therapists, because most of the low-income students qualify for MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid).

The services, however, aren’t completely free. The charter academy scrounges together over $1.6 million to cover the remaining sum that the providers cannot, plus a heaping of other expenditures including after-school programs and field trips.

“We’ve been around a very long time,” says Ruiz. “We’re entering our 15th academic year. It started out very grassroots, and it’s grown to eight schools since the beginning. We just opened a new high school in 2013, and I see no reason to stop growing anytime soon.”

Results are successful; 97 percent of Nuevo Camino students graduate high school, compared to 68 percent district wide.

“To say I’m impressed is an understatement,” says Quiroz. “I’ve been to a lot of schools, and helped with a lot of counseling programs, and I’ve never seen anything close to this. The involvement the school takes with students and their families is truly inspiring.”

Ruiz agrees completely, and encourages more schools to adapt their integrative approach.