Picture shows hands of student drawing with colorful markers. The picture is used to illustrate for an article on trauma-informed schools.
Photography by Ryan S. Brandenberg

Temple University researchers are taking an interdisciplinary approach to help schools in North Philadelphia better support their students and families who have experienced trauma.

Associate professor of urban education Maia Cucchiara is leading a team from the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) in an evaluation collaboration with the Lewis Katz School of Medicine's Center for Urban Bioethics.

The Center is working to understand and respond to community needs. Its signature initiative, Philadelphia Healthy and Safe Schools (PHASeS) works closely with educators and community members to create trauma-sensitive schools in three K-8 schools in North Philadelphia.

To ensure the intervention adequately addresses the needs of these schools, the project has engaged Cucchiara and other CEHD faculty, and the collaboration is now in its third year. 

Addressing Community Needs 

"The Philadelphia Healthy and Safe Schools program is rooted in the notion of how we can become better neighbors, more ethical community liaisons within Temple University," says Mary Beth Hays, PHASeS program director. "By talking to community members, we've learned that there is a critical need for a trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed school environment." 

PHASeS's primary objective is to engage with community sectors, staff, parents and children to increase their awareness and application of trauma-informed principles. PHASeS trauma specialists use educational coaching, parenting guidance, and social work values to empower the school community. 

"We want to give educators enough ability, capability and capacity to understand and learn how to regulate trauma, first within themselves, and then support the children," shares Hays. "Through assessments and active listening, we identify layers of possibilities and potentials for interventions. We look at points of entry in developing real relationships with people and having meaningful conversations about growth and changes. And the children remain the greatest focus of it all." 

Comprehensive Evaluation 

Driven by the intent to foster a culture of resilience in schools, the long-term goal of PHASeS is to help the target schools achieve educational milestones, generate a positive climate for educators and students, and engender greater academic and social equity. Evaluation, then, plays a vital role in validating these impacts of PHASeS and identifying areas of improvement for the program. 

"We want PHASeS to be evaluated ethically," Hays shares. "Recognizing that we are an education-based program, we reached out to faculty in the College of Education and Human Development at Temple University, as they are best informed from an urban education perspective on how to evaluate the efficacy and impact of programs like ours." 

The goal is, "one day PHASeS is no longer needed in schools as they will be independent trauma sensitive educational settings," Hays adds. "Educational spaces should emanate a degree of health, wellness and security, where teachers can teach, and children can reach their highest cognitive state to retain and learn." She explains this can also mean helping the schools create better and safer playgrounds, supporting healthy eating, and making other improvements to the building, in addition to providing training on trauma sensitivity. 

The evaluation team in CEHD collects data and tracks the implementation of the PHASeS model, how various members are experiencing it, as well as its outcomes. 

"This includes learning about their growing awareness of trauma-informed practices, their growing sense of efficacy using the skills, and their sense of the quality of the professional work setting. How is the PHASeS project helping its target schools develop trauma-informed school cultures? What impact does this have on students' social and academic outcomes?" 

As an ethnographer, qualitative researcher and expert in urban education-focused work, Cucchiara recognizes the immediate "need for educators who, in all settings, understand trauma and how to help students build resilience." 

The complex nature of the evaluation brings together faculty and alumni from multiple disciplines in the CEHD. The core team includes Lori Shorr, associate professor of urban education and policy; Crystal Austin, assistant professor of counseling psychology; and Sarah Cordes, associate professor of policy, organizational and leadership studies. Xu Jiang, associate professor of school psychology, and Thierry Elin-Saintine, CEHD urban education doctoral program alumnus and a faculty member at Stockton State University are on the team as consultants. 

"Because it's a complicated intervention, we need to understand how people are experiencing it. We need to understand its impact and measurable outcomes," Cucchiara says. "So as a team, we all bring our own unique expertise, which is invaluable." 

Key Findings 

The evaluation team examines each step of PHASeS through a logic model, looking at the interrelations of teachers' attitudes towards trauma, the quality of school climate, educator well-being, as well as student outcomes. 

"Evidence shows that the PHASeS team in each school has engaged deeply with adults and students, providing training, one-on-one support, and other resources," Cucchiara notes. "It reaches a wide swath of educators, support staff and school leaders. They have built trust with the educators and are viewed positively." 

"We must engage with communities and sub-communities with cultural competency and literacy, respect, and integrity. And a lot of it starts with building trust and merit," Hays shares. "Change can create an adverse response just from a natural human expectation. We're grateful for every school that has allowed us to come in, be present and extend growth and change." 

Other important findings from the evaluation thus far suggest that PHASeS has improved teacher and staff awareness in trauma-informed care. It has had a positive impact on teachers and staff's work, especially as it relates to students' well-being. There is also evidence that PHASeS is contributing meaningfully to improving school climate, particularly with respect to creating trauma-informed environments and disciplinary practices. 

Vision for the Future 

As the program evolves, the evaluation team hopes to collect more data on the impact PHASeS has on student outcomes. 

"We're focused on doing the most rigorous evaluation that we can with great care and thought," Cucchiara says. "The collaboration between the PHASeS and CEHD team has allowed us to partner with community members and be on the ground in the schools in a way that feels authentic. This also aligns with CEHD's mission in advancing equitable systems and practices in schools and communities." 

On behalf of the PHASeS team, Hays would like to extend gratitude to all the participating schools and community partners. 

"Our hope for the future is that we will have a real impact on what trauma sensitivity looks like for individuals in their roles, either as a student or as an educator, embracing the entire school community" Hays shares. "We hope people who have a passion for children and education will have a comfortable place to educate from a social, moral and health justice standpoint. And most importantly, we want to foster an environment in which children can learn with freedom, from a place of equity."