St. Malachy School in North Philadelphia has an integrated trauma program

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When students came to class in person, the private St. Malachy School in North Philadelphia was equipped with a robust emotional support program to help kids deal with trauma.

The 11th and Thompson building offered its 275 students access to a space called the Peace Room. It was stocked with bean bag chairs, books, music, snacks — even an elliptical, in case they needed to get some energy out. There were two full-time staffers working the room at all times, one of whom is a counselor.

When in-person learning was shut down in March, the Peace Room went dark. Malachy staff could no longer casually chat with students on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the pandemic added stress to everyone’s life, and neighborhood violence continued to swirl.

So Malachy moved the whole program online. Teachers use Google Classroom and Zoom breakout sessions to monitor their students’ mental health.

“There were a few virtual hiccups,” Kevin Hartley, head of Malachy’s Peace Room, told Billy Penn. “Everything was happening so rapidly, but eventually, we found a solid method.”

With shootings rising at an unprecedented rate, the cash-strapped School District of Philadelphia is trying a similar approach, using funding from Medicaid originally meant to supplement in-school programs.

“Violence has definitely increased over the last couple months,” said Jayme Banks, the School District of Philadelphia’s director of trauma informed school practices. “Even prior to this we knew that our children experience a lot, and we wanted to support our kids.”

The James sisters, students at St. Malachy Credit: Courtesy Kiara James

Upside to virtual learning: No chance of getting shot while walking to school

Malachy parent Kiara James enrolled her two daughters at Malachy three years ago. They live two blocks away, but last year shootings became so frequent she opted to drive the kids to school rather than walk. It felt safer, she said.

“My 10-year-old notices it the most,” James said. “She doesn’t play outside a lot because she’s heard the gunshots a lot of the time. She’s afraid if she goes outside she’ll be shot.”

Most of Malachy’s students live in the school’s surrounding North Philly neighborhoods. More than half live within a mile of the 11th Street corridor where 35 people have been shot since January — a 400% increase from the average number of annual victims since 2015.

Last year, Dean of Students William Eichler said he could tell the programming was working. About 20 students visited the room each day, some on their own without a scheduled visit. They could exercise, read, listen to music, grab a snack. They could talk to a counselor. If they needed space, they could relax in a bean bag chair, unbothered.

Student surveys showed that more than 80% of students either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I like the way [the staff] treats me when I need help.”

“We have data to show that students that come here, when they get back to the classroom, they’re doing a lot better,” Hartley said. “It matters.”

The Peace Room at St. Malachy School in North Philadelphia Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Now, Hartley sends out daily mental health exercises via Google Classroom, meant to help kids process their emotions. Think lessons like “How to draw your feelings” from the Fleisher Art Memorial, and books read aloud on YouTube.

He also drops in on virtual classes to monitor students’ behavior for signs of trauma. If he or the teacher notices something, they’ll set up a breakout room with a student to chat one-on-one.

It’s going about as well as can be expected — although Hartley will admit fewer students engage with the services.

“I don’t look at that as a bad thing,” Hartley said. “I look at it as they have more support around them. Everyone’s home. They have mom or dad, or brothers and sisters there to also talk to.”

School parent James said she sees Malachy’s emotional support staff working, and appreciates it, adding that she thinks it might even be easier for her older daughter, Sinai, to discuss feelings virtually versus in person. Virtual school also means no daily commute through a violence-wracked area.

“I have definitely felt safer at home,” James said. “I don’t have to worry about if there’s gonna be a shooting when we’re walking to school.”

Using Medicaid funds to supplement school district counseling

Philly’s much larger and financially struggling public school district is trying to implement a strategy similar to St. Malachy.

Counselors at Philly public schools do the same kind of class drop-ins that Hartley does at Malachy, according to Banks, the district’s trauma director. Counselors also host virtual office hours over Zoom, offering parents and students a chance to request help.

Then there’s new initiatives, like the Healing Together program, through which school faculty can request district-level support after traumatic incidents like shootings or fires.

Also new is a virtual behavioral health services program, which uses Medicaid funds to hook schools up with counseling services from outside contractors. The Spring Garden School, which is in the same North Philly neighborhood at St. Malachy, can ask for outside help from the nearby NorthEast Treatment Centers.

“So far, there weren’t situations this year where we brought in an outside provider, like the grief groups we offered in the spring,” Banks said. “Whenever we go back to hybrid in-person [learning], some schools will have a provider stationed there.”

The downside is that outside contractors haven’t built up the same kind of established trust as Malachy’s full-time Peace Room faculty.

“We’re encouraging kids to build relationships with these providers, to bring them into the culture and environment of the school,” Banks said. “That’s going to take time.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...