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Alto Park aims to become a 'trauma-informed school'

Of the 454 young students at Alto Park Elementary School, three have been hospitalized with suicidal thoughts — one twice.

“And it’s just November,” Principal Suzie Henderson told state lawmakers at the final meeting of the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social & Emotional Health.

“We also have four Pre-K students struggling to stay regulated, disrupting the other 21 students. They had to be removed from the classroom, but I believe this is not the answer,” Henderson said.

That’s why, with the new year, Henderson is committed to establishing a new culture that emphasizes connectivity and relationships as part of the educational process.

“We’re in the beginning stages of becoming a trauma-informed school,” she told the committee chaired by Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome.

Henderson said she and instructional specialist Stephanie Ayers came back revitalized from a mid-month national conference in Denver on trauma-informed schools sponsored by the Beyond Consequences Institute.

Ayers immediately put her new knowledge into practice, Henderson said, and sent an email to the staff detailing the small success.

When Ayers noticed a child having trouble getting started on an assignment, she pulled her aside to talk. The girl said that she’s afraid to be without her mother when the woman goes into the hospital to have a baby. That her father is incarcerated. That she’s being teased at school.

“I let her talk …” the email read. “I shared my joy in my baby and she got into it and looked forward to her baby brother. Then she started to work. I could have given her a warning … I’m so glad at that moment that I responded with empathy.”

A first-grade teacher responded with an email about a child “who came in completely off.” He was allowed to sit and watch instead, then regained his focus “and was able to breathe” after he was given a chance to talk about his problems at home.

Henderson read from the email: “Taking time to listen to your kids and giving them a voice really does work … He needed love and someone to listen to him more than he needed reading today,” it said.

Then the principal underscored for the lawmakers what every classroom teacher is confronted with, sometimes daily.

“When we lay academic expectations on top of the social and emotional needs (students) have, they can’t get regulated. They shut down,” Henderson said.

The answer

One of the conference speakers was Jim Sporleder, a retired principal who established a “trauma-informed” culture to change the lives of at-risk students in his high school in Walla Walla, Washington.

The dramatic drop in detentions, increased graduation rate and students going on to secondary education sparked a documentary called “Paper Tigers.”

Henderson said staffers at Alto Park will be using their Dec. 6 planning day to watch the documentary and they have a Jan. 9 Google Hangout scheduled with Sporleder, who is now a consultant.

The techniques have been proven successful, she noted, and intervention at an earlier age is likely to produce even better results.

“We expect our students to flourish in school after being abused the night before …,” she said. “Jim said his students found hope and re-engaged with the educational environment. Once they had that hope, the data came naturally.”

But Henderson had two warnings for the lawmakers questioning her. First, there’s no concerted effort to teach the concept to aspiring educators in Georgia colleges. And, second, there is a dire need for resources to implement it.

“This can’t be another program I take to my teachers and pile on their plate … The emotional burden our teachers are carrying is astronomical and it is wearing them down,” Henderson said.

Alto Park will be instituting “small shifts,” she said, such as spending the first five or 10 minutes of the day in classroom conversations, or just high-fiving each child as they arrive. But more help is needed.

Dempsey and the other four members of the panel — Reps. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock; Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers; Robert Dickey, R-Musella; and Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur — indicated the idea is worthy of support.

The group will be filing a report with recommendations for action during the upcoming Georgia General Assembly session. Dempsey said the need to train education majors in universities “is an important point” and she noted that there could be new opportunities for state and federal funding.

“We’ll take all that into consideration,” Dempsey promised. “As Dr. Henderson said, the cost of inaction is more than we can afford to pay.”

City contracts for new design of Unity Point

A 2013 special purpose, local option sales tax project to stabilize and redevelop Unity Point on the downtown side of the confluence of the rivers in Rome is back on track.

Nearly 20 months after the first round of bids for the project were rejected, the city has contracted with Chattanooga-based CTI Engineers Inc. to develop a new design concept.

“The main thing is we’ve got to stabilize what’s washing away,” City Manager Sammy Rich said.

The company has also been asked to look at a way of including a boat launch, more specifically a canoe, kayak and paddleboard launch at the site to take advantage of the growing number of people who are using the rivers for recreation.

The CTI website, https://www.ctiengr.com/, has photographs of a similar project at the Camp Jordan Park on West Chickamauga Creek in East Ridge, Tennessee.

“We’ve toured some areas where these guys have done some projects and they’ve got a good history of incorporating some pretty unique designs,” Rich said.

The terraced plaza at the point was originally developed in advance of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.

It was fenced and closed off to the public in 2010 as a result of constant erosion that resulted from the up and down flow of both the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers. Local anglers however can often be seen at the base of the point with lines in the water waiting on a fish to bite.

The 2013 SPLOST package included $1.8 million for the project. However, when it was first put out for bids almost two years ago, the city included an examination of the corrosion on the round center pier support for the Robert Redden Footbridge.

When the bridge was originally a railroad bridge, the bridge rotated on that column to allow steamboats to pass. Rome historian Selena Tilly said it was one of three bridges in Rome that turned on a central pier to allow steamboats to pass. The other two were on Second Avenue and Fifth Avenue.

The examination of that pier ran the two bids for the project right up to the SPLOST budget of $1.8 million.

The city Public Works committee recommended JCH Corp. of Peachtree City for the project because they had done some previous work with the city in South Rome.

The city commission opted to put the project on hold before a vote was scheduled to award the bid in April of 2018.

“There were just too many questions and too much unknown,” Rich said. But the city has a better idea now of what it is up against after re-evaluating the project and issues related to the footbridge are no longer a part of the project.

“We’ve tried to simplify the project and really, I think we’ll be better off,” Rich said.

There isn’t a specific timeline for CTI to come up with a new design.

“Generally speaking they know that this is time sensitive and we’re ready to get this thing wrapped up. Hopefully we’ll some results sooner rather than later,” Rich said.

Parker Beach, a third-grader at Pepperell Elementary School

United Way funds local Boys & Girls Clubs programs for health, academics, financial literacy

Rome mother of three Grace McGregory feels blessed beyond measure for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Georgia.

“I would definitely recommend this program to other parents,” McGregory, a substitute teacher of North Rome, said recently of the B&GC program Project Learn.

Project Learn has been awarded a $108,000, two-year Community Impact Grant from United Way of Rome-Floyd County. It was one of seven local nonprofit programs at five separate agencies receiving the grants for the 2020-22 grant cycle.

Project Learn — a United Way-funded mainstay of the local B&GC for many years now — focuses on health, financial literacy and academic empowerment through various subprograms under the Project Learn umbrella, according to B&GC of NW Georgia Development Director Auburn Brasher.

“What we do as a whole is work with children who need us the most through our clubs in West and South Rome, as well as throughout Floyd County,” Brasher said, adding they serve about 3,000 children annually, but the grant will target 360 middle school children over the next two years. “With the funding from United Way, we’re going to use that to accomplish very specific focus areas.”

Those areas include healthy eating and living goals through their Adult Care Food Program and the Triple Play physical fitness program; giving children an academic boost through their Power Hour program that focuses on homework and other activities, as well as through their STEM Academy; and increasing financial literacy through their Money Matters and Family Financial Empowerment programs.

“We really appreciate the United Way support and the community support because this will help target those members of the middle school population and will allow us to continue with our fundraising efforts to fund the rest of the children we serve,” said Brasher, who has been with the agency for nearly four years. “Some of our children started coming to us when they were young and continued as a teen and now come back and visit as an adult or have their own children in our programs now. We’re consistently in their lives.”

Brasher said the organization has a sliding fee scale for those who cannot afford the $25 annual membership for each person served. Sponsorships also help cover the expenses of those struggling financially.

“We’re open to anyone in the community,” she said. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

Oblivious of the recent grant award, McGregory only knows for sure how much the B&GC has helped her own children ages 7, 9 and 10.

McGregory said her children started attending a club this past summer when she was looking to keep them engaged physically and academically while she worked.

They have continued to take the bus there every day after school, staying until 6 p.m.

“It wasn’t like a daycare or anything,” she explained. “They helped them with homework and got them involved in new activities they otherwise wouldn’t have had an opportunity to try.”

She knows the club has helped her oldest son overcome his debilitating anxiety and come out of his shell socially. She knows her daughter has learned to love to read. And she knows her other son has thoroughly enjoyed being able to play football with the other boys in the program.

“They also are more excited about math now and their homework is always done before they get home,” McGregory said. “They also have a lot more positivity about school now. It’s really been a godsend.”