By Zipporah Osei, Chalkbeat New York
The Brownsville Old Timers Day annual block party celebrates Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood with food, song, and street performances. This year, though, as the event was winding down, shots rang out — killing one person, wounding 11 others, and making national headlines.
That was July 27. By the next day, Nadia Lopez, the principal and founder of Mott Hall Bridges Academy — a middle school located just a mile away from the shooting — had assembled the school’s “social-emotional support team,” comprising a school guidance counselor, social worker, director of programs, assistant principal, and Lopez herself. One current student had a family member who had been wounded, and a recent Mott Hall graduate was related to the person who’d been killed; the school’s support team checked in with them both, offering up grief counseling and other resources.
Helping bereaved students is an ongoing endeavor for many New York City educators — especially in neighborhoods like Brownsville, where the rate of violent crime is higher than the city as a whole. At Mott Hall, some 92 percent of the nearly 200 students live in poverty, and poverty often correlates with decreased life expectancy.
The school’s support team is used to working with bereaved students, and in recent years it has become a citywide model for emotionally responsive education amid crises and also on a day-to-day basis.
Lopez has all her students take a survey at the beginning of each school year to identify those who may be quietly dealing with a loss and at risk for academic or social slumps. The school also has a weekly, counselor-led grief support group, where students and share their feelings, write, or create memorial art projects. And if there’s a violent incident in the community, whether or not a student has been personally affected, Mott Hall organizes school-wide assemblies where students can share their feelings.
Since Mott Hall opened in 2010, it has worked closely each year with at least one grieving student, and sometimes as many as 15 such students. Some lose loved ones to old age, complications from illnesses or accidents, and some to violence.
“It’s often forgotten that the school is a representation of the community it serves,” Lopez said. “When you have a crisis where there’s a shooting and there’s a death involved, it does require a higher level of support.”
Since it first opened its doors, Mott Hall has placed a premium on the social-emotional well-being of its students, according to Lopez.
Back in 2015, the school was featured in a viral Humans of New York post. In that online feature, Lopez was praised for her dedication to students. The post led to a $1.4 million fundraiser, and Lopez went on to meet President Barack Obama, give a TED Talk, and start a college scholarship fund for her students.
“Poverty has a direct effect on the quality of living that these students have, and mental health services are not adequate in our community,” she said. “All of these things play out into their well being and their ability to think and be present in the classroom.”
Arkeema Chandler, 19, and Dominique Harrell, 18, are Mott Hall alums and current college students. Both of them lost a parent while at the middle school and took part in the school’s grief support group.
Harrell learned of her mother’s death after being pulled out of her lunch period by her older sister. She came back to class the same day and was greeted with immediate concern from every staff member she encountered.
“When they say support, they mean support,” Harrell said, noting the school guidance counselor brought her food and talked her through the initial shock of her loss. “I was just one kid and it felt like they put everything on pause to focus on me,” she said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Chandler, meanwhile, enrolled at Mott Hall a few years after the death of her father. In May of her sixth-grade year, her mother died. When she started having suicidal thoughts after her parents’ deaths, it was Lopez and Wesley McLeod, the school’s guidance counselor, who intervened — reaching out to Chandler, her grandmother, and her little sister “constantly.”
She noted, “If I didn’t have that push I don’t know if I’d be here now.”
McLeod knows the work of grief support is not limited to the initial aftermath “because grieving is a life-long process, and every day the student may feel differently about the loss than they did the day before,” he said. “But I tell them if you need to talk to somebody, you always have someone here at Mott Hall to do that with.”
The New York Life Foundation, which has provided grants to pay for relevant books and trainings, and free bereavement resources to over 1,000 schools nationwide, has designated Mott Hall a “grief-sensitive” school. Mott Hall has received a $500 grant from the foundation for its commitment to addressing childhood bereavement.
Such work can be life-changing, but only 7% of teachers say they’ve received any bereavement training, even though 93% say they’ve had at least one grieving student, according to a 2012 survey the foundation conducted in collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers.
“One of the main things that we hear time and time again from educators is that they want to support a grieving student, they just don’t know how, or where to go,” said Maria Collins, vice president of the foundation. “But if a grieving student is not supported, they’re just at a higher risk for social-emotional learning loss.”
Mott Hall is among 34 New York City public schools to have received grants from the foundation. Meanwhile, across the country, entire school districts, in places such as San Diego, California, Savannah, Georgia, and Miami-Dade County, Florida, have signed on to implement the “grief-sensitive” model in all their schools.
That kind of district-wide focus is what some parents and advocates at a recent town hall in the Bronx said they would like to see from New York City’s education department. The Aug. 7 gathering, which was held to discuss how city schools can better address childhood trauma, drew hundreds of attendees who expressed frustration with the lack of attention given to trauma, including grief, in schools.
Dana Ashley, the director of Positive Learning Collaborative, which provides city teachers therapeutic crisis intervention training, was at the meeting. So far, the training has been administered at 25 schools. Its implementation coincided with an 82% decrease in suspensions at the first six schools the collaborative worked with, the group reported.
“Our goal really is about teaching people to have relationships with kids where they can really connect, and kids feel safe to talk about whatever is going on — traumatic or not,” Ashley said.
Lopez said that in recent years she’s seen more New York City public schools investing in students social-emotional wellness, including following a loss, “but there are a number of schools with no programs, with little funding, who really need that support,” she said.
Years on Chandler and Harrell, now young adults, often return to the middle school that helped carry them through their grief to support younger students. Lopez and her staff will “always have my back,” Chandler said.
And when a traumatic event happens locally, such as last month’s deadly shooting, they try to relay the same messages of community and resilience that they were taught years ago.
“If you were going through something at Mott Hall you’re not going through it alone,” Harrell often tells students. “Even when you’re at your lowest, you’re walking through the doors to people who want you to feel your best.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.