How Bugs Beat Out Video Games: Winning Back Students with STEM
The Teen and Youth Center (TYC) in Seward was at a low point. Attendance was declining, and grades were dropping – especially after summer break.
“Kids just wanted to stay home and play video games,” explains Josie McClain, coordinator of TYC, a city-run program offering afterschool programs and summer camp for elementary and middle school students.
When Josie saw an email from the Alaska Afterschool Network (AAN) – a program of Alaska Children’s Trust – about an upcoming Science Action Club training on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), her eyes lit up. “I said, ‘I want to explore this!’”
“Investing in our children safeguards their well-being today and assures the future success of our state and nation,” explains Thomas Azzarella, AAN director. “Research shows that afterschool programs increase student’s attendance, grades, and graduation rates; decrease expulsions; increase self-esteem, causing a reduction in suicide; and builds the protective factors to overcome trauma.”
Josie received a grant from AAN and attended her first STEM training – on bugs – last October. “I don’t even like bugs, but it was so cool,” she says. After completing the training, she brought the curriculum kit back to Seward and launched a pilot program for middle schoolers.
And that’s when the tides began to turn for TYC.
“Before, we didn’t have these kinds of programs in Seward. It helps us reach kids we don’t normally see, and we are seeing more and more of them,” Josie shares. “Kids interests began to change, and we started to see them light up.”
The STEM afterschool program was so well received that Josie built the entire summer program around STEM. With coaching from AAN, Josie wrote and received a grant from the Seward Community Foundation to help cover summer activities. “We were full for the first time in years,” she says. “We even had a wait list.”
As part of the summer program, kids visited botanical gardens, explored the Imaginarium in Anchorage, and went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Alaska Zoo. “It was the coolest summer, and I have been doing this for a long time,” says Josie, who has been at TYC since 2005.
While increased participation is exciting, it’s the change in the kids that is most powerful. “Kids are having conversation, partnering more and asking good questions. They want to do activities, not just hang out. And they are having a lot of fun – they don’t think it’s work,” Josie shares. “It is really cool to watch the changes.”
One student in particular stands out to Josie – a middle schooler who has always struggled to fit in with his peers. This summer, as part of another Science Action Club STEM curriculum on birds, the student was put in charge of researching the different kinds of birds that the group saw.
“He was very meticulous. He went beyond what the lesson was – he researched more and then came in and presented to everyone,” Josie recalls. “It gave him the opportunity to be the hero. He still had rough times but to watch him shine in those moments was so special.”
Josie is looking forward to continued opportunities through AAN, including a Science Action Club training on clouds this winter and the Alaska Afterschool Conference in November.
“I am so grateful to the Alaska Afterschool Network for helping open the door for Seward,” Josie says. “None of this would be possible without organizations like AAN bringing this information to smaller communities.”
Did you know?
Students can lose up to two months’ worth of learning from the previous school year when their minds aren’t engaged during the summer vacation. AAN is committed to expanding summer learning opportunities for children and youth throughout Alaska.
Fewer than 15% of high school graduates have enough math and science to pursue scientific or technical degrees in college. AAN is dedicated to expanding access to out-of-school STEM learning programs by improving existing programs and creating new ones.
Shifting from punishment to help and healing
Imagine a child. A young boy or girl who has experienced trauma. Perhaps it’s emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Perhaps there’s substance abuse or mental illness in their home. Or perhaps their parents are divorcing or a family member is in jail.
Imagine now the child in school, where they are supposed to sit quietly, listen attentively and work diligently. But because of the biological changes that have taken place in their bodies because of trauma, they are simply unable to.
Instead they act out. Perhaps they yell at another student. Kick over a chair. Walk out of the classroom.
In response, the teacher sends the child to the principal’s office, where they are reprimanded. Perhaps the parents are called. Perhaps a harsh punishment awaits the child at home.
And the cycle continues.
Changing this cycle is one of the focus areas of the Alaska Resilience Initiative (ARI), an initiative of Alaska Children’s Trust. “Our goal is to support Alaska’s institutions to be trauma informed and culturally responsive, providing children and families the opportunity to heal, while also working to prevent new traumas,” explains Laura Norton-Cruz, ARI program director.
Trauma-informed, culturally responsive institutions focus on helping the person who has experienced trauma, rather than removing or punishing them. And they offer help in a way that is just, equitable and accepting of different identities. “Being culturally responsive is equally important to being trauma informed,” Laura says. “Those things together create a safe, empowering, trustworthy environment.”
ARI’s collaboration with the Anchorage School District (ASD) is just one example of efforts to create trauma-informed, culturally responsive transformation in Alaska.
In August, Laura presented to all of the ASD elementary school principals, discussing the importance of trauma-informed, culturally responsive schools. “School needs to be a safe place for all kids – and especially kids who have experienced trauma,” she says.
Following the presentation, Nunaka Valley Elementary School principal Timothy Blake invited Laura to come to his school. “I was moved by her talk,” he says. “Many of the characteristics of children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that she described are evident here on a daily basis and impact our school greatly.”
Laura spoke to his entire staff – from teachers and counselors to the custodian and lunch lady. “It was very well received and generated a lot of discussion,” says Timothy, who has since joined ARI’s trauma-informed systems change workgroup. “The most important thing we took from the presentation was the importance of building connections with students and focusing on building resiliency through supportive relationships with kids.”
Going forward, Nunaka Valley staff will continue their professional development in social emotional learning and trauma-informed practices. They are also looking to establish family support groups and offer parenting workshops.
“Being trauma informed creates supportive relationships with our students and families,” Timothy says. “Understanding the effects and characteristics of ACEs allows us to use informed practices to create successful opportunities for every child.”
In addition to providing direct training, ARI also works to connect people and amplify existing efforts – such as those at ASD’s Northwood Elementary. Three years ago, led by principal Deanna Beck, the school began its trauma-informed systems change journey, beginning with a focus on staff wellness.
Through staff training, collaborative planning and implementation of practices such as morning greeters at the front door and “We are glad you made it to school today” cards in place of tardy slips, Northwood has experienced some real shifts. For example, according to the School Climate and Connectedness Survey, 79 percent of their 6th graders agreed with the statement “I can name at least five adults who really care about me” – a 29 percent improvement from the previous year.
After learning about Northwood’s efforts and successes, ARI began sharing the school’s story with others, publishing an article on the ARI blog and incorporating highlights into presentations.
“The trauma-informed work going on at Northwood is not because of ARI,” Laura explains. “We learned about it and amplified their efforts by telling others about it. And now other people are asking about it. Deanna is getting regular inquiries from other schools asking for guidance.”
ARI plans to continue collaborating with ASD, as well as expand trauma-informed systems efforts to other institutions and areas of the state. ARI, with input from many diverse statewide voices, is also in the process of developing curriculum and creating a cohort of trainers who can give presentations on ACEs and trauma-informed systems change to audiences across Alaska.
“When we address the root of trauma, we can begin to move the needle on many issues, including child abuse,” Laura says. “It’s a game changer.”
ARI’s shared goal is mobilizing Alaska to end child maltreatment, intergenerational and systemic trauma through healing and strategic advocacy. It is working toward that through networking, communication, policy advocacy, and trauma-informed systems change.
Connecting beyond the bars
Lullabies connect children with mothers in prison
A mother singing her child to sleep – it’s perhaps one of the most timeless images of motherhood. However, it’s also one of the most out of reach for a mother in prison. This gap between a mother in prison and her child can be wide – both physically and emotionally.
“Even though my kids are older, it’s still very hard. Also my grandbabies – I am missing everything about their lives and growing up,” shares Stacy Lundy, an inmate at Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility in Eagle River, who has three grown children and three grandchildren, ages 5 and under.
The Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project seeks to bridge that gap and bring mothers at Hiland closer to their children – and grandchildren, in Stacy’s case. The Lullaby Project, modeled after a similar project at the Carnegie Hall Music Weill Institute, pairs incarcerated women with musician coaches to create beautiful, personal lullabies for their children at home.
“The Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project will help to lessen the trauma among the children resulting from the separation from their parent by helping mothers use music to support and convey to their children that they are loved; to create a sense of belonging; to share feelings, express joy, love and a connection to each other – all necessary for a child to develop a sense of security and healthy social/emotional development,” explains Shirley Mae Staten, who spearheaded the project in Alaska. Alaska Children’s Trust supported the effort with a $10,000 grant.
Last year, 16 mothers at Hiland participated in the first year of the project. “We all wrote a letter to our children and then our musician helped turn it into a song with music,” says Stacy, adding that she found writing the letter to be most challenging. “I wanted them to know how sorry I am and how much they all mean to me … It was very emotional.”
The inaugural year of the project culminated with a concert at Hiland, where the mothers and musicians performed the songs to an audience of 250 supporters. At the concert, Stacy presented her lullaby, “You Are My Sunshine,” to her children and grandchildren.
“I felt proud, blessed, guilty and emotional,” says Stacy. “They all loved their song and everyone was emotional.”
The lullabies were compiled into a 16-song CD, which were given to the inmates and their families, as well as available for purchase.
The inspiring project will continue this year with a few additions. Two former inmates who participated in the 2016 project will return as teaching artists, and two children of inmates will work with coaches to compose a responding lullaby to their mothers. A lullaby journal with sheet music for the songs will also be created and given to the inmates and their children, as well as to Anchorage elementary music teachers. And the concert schedule will be expanded to include performances for male inmates, female inmates and a public performance at Hiland.
“I think every mother should be able to participate in this program,” Stacy states. “It helps mothers reconnect with their children.”
Since inception, ACT has awarded more than $5 million in community investment grants to organizations in Alaska that work toward the prevention of child abuse and neglect. In 2016 – 2017, we awarded $301,920 to 29 organizations across the state. See the full list of grant recipients and funded projects at alaskachildrenstrust.org.
Too expensive to live
Protecting Alaskans' health care
When Amber Lee was diagnosed last fall with a very rare genetic condition that can lead to aggressive kidney cancer, one of her first thoughts was if she would have insurance coverage to help cover the cost of care.
“It’s not a cheap disease to have. Without insurance, it would be impossible to manage,” says Amber, who must get MRIs of her kidneys regularly to monitor for cancerous growths that could quickly spread if not caught early. Currently, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) ensures that Amber can’t be denied health insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions like this.
Amber is one of many Alaskans who would be profoundly impacted by the repeal of the ACA. She’s also one of many Alaskans speaking up to protect the ACA through Protect Our Care Alaska, a coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses.
“People and groups came together to protect the Affordable Care Act from repeal. It is still being threatened constantly,” Amber says. “The issue impacts everyone, and we are aligned with how important it is to get Congress to do the right thing.”
Voices for Alaska’s Children, a program of Alaska Children’s Trust, has been the backbone organization for the coalition, providing space and support for the grassroots effort.
“Health care is a critical tool to help prevent child abuse and neglect,” explains Trevor Storrs, ACT’s executive director. “Health care reduces stress on our most vulnerable families who are already struggling due to poverty, and inability to access services. Health care gives parents access to services to address their own trauma, provides preventive services, ensures children remain healthy physically and mentally, and minimizes the fiscal stress and impact on the family.”
For Amber, the importance of protecting the ACA goes beyond just her own health.
“The disease I have is genetic, so my kids could have it,” says Amber, who has two sons, ages 9 and 11. “If they are tested for the genetic condition and have it, they could be denied coverage for the rest of their lives.”
“There is already so much stress with the disease, and then on top of it, I have to worry about if I have insurance coverage and if I can pay for it. I make a decent salary, but it could get to a point where I can’t pay to care for myself. And for my kids, they could go through their entire lives without coverage. It is very stressful,” Amber shares.
“It gets to a point where you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it too expensive to keep myself alive?’”
“People talk about this like it is a political issue. But it’s about people’s lives,” Amber stresses. “Repealing the ACA means less coverage, less protection and more expense. It’s important for people to understand it.”
“For me, health care is the very foundation of a healthy society. It’s one of the most basic things to live a good, productive life. It impacts everything,” she says. “If we don’t have that, we are failing as a state, as a nation.”
Amber strongly encourages other Alaskans to get involved in efforts to protect the ACA. “All these voices together send a strong message. We are not one special interest group. We are the majority of Alaska,” she says “Our voices are powerful.”
Join ACT and others to #ProtectOurCare. Learn about the issue and how you can get involved at protectourcareak.org or on Facebook @protectourcareAK.
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