OPED: Love can heal urban education

Rev. Aaron Anderson, Logos Academy, York

The challenge of educating urban students within the context of poverty, trauma, abuse, and other socioeconomic factors that contribute to students’ lives can be overwhelming and seemingly impossible for urban educators. Research from the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) studies demonstrates, however, that urban students are at significantly higher risks for negative health factors as adults because they lack resiliency fostered in safe, loving environments. 

Rev. Aaron Anderson, Logos Academy

Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with Poverty in Mind, summarizes: “Every year, millions of unloved and traumatized youth enter adulthood with damaged brains and hearts. They are highly predisposed to die from self-destructive behaviors, and highly likely to continue the cycle of abuse.”

Hopelessness is powerful. It insists that urban schools cannot be reformed. City schools, and the communities they represent, are racked with high dropout rates, low student attendance, senseless violence, and economic and racial segregation. Research confirms that urban schools are swarming with traumatized kids.

Cynicism tempts us to believe that the cycle of poverty is unbreakable. A high-quality education is critical to ending the cycle of poverty, but its delivery can be a challenge. Poverty and childhood trauma are a potent concoction that make teacher-student relationships a struggle.

It seems easier to pity hurting students who live in poverty than to love them. Any decent educator knows though, that trust and respect are fundamental to a healthy teacher-student relationship. The people we trust and respect are typically those we know love and care about us. Loving students that are hurting, and thereby developing their trust and respect, is not an easy task.

Referring to this challenge, Jensen writes, “Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to sub-optimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance.”

The ACE Studies

Research is uncovering what many parents and teachers know intuitively: love plays a crucial role in the healthy development of children’s brains. In 1998, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study (Felitti & Anda, 1998) was conducted by a group of researchers on 9,508 adults at Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego Health Appraisal Clinic. This study was composed of primarily white, middle-class, and highly educated individuals. A similar ACE study was conducted on 1,784 adults in Philadelphia in 2012 that focused on an urban community with broader social, economic, and racial diversity (Public Health Management Group, 2013).

Both studies required participants to complete a questionnaire that reported their experience of adverse childhood experiences. These included suffering psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; witnessing violence against one’s mother; and living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or who had been imprisoned. The Philadelphia study included additional adverse experiences associated with living in urban communities, such as residing in unsafe neighborhoods, suffering bullying, witnessing violence, experiencing racism, and living in foster care (Public Health Management Group, 2013).

Researchers studied the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and negative adult health risk factors that had been identified as the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States. These negative adult health risk factors included the following:

  • Smoking
  • Severe obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Any drug use
  • Alcoholism
  • Depressed mood
  • Suicide attempts
  • A high lifetime number of sexual partners (>50)
  • Sexually transmitted disease

The results of both studies were staggering. Researchers found a graded relationship between the number of categories of adverse childhood experiences and the adult health risk behaviors and diseases. Children who experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences grew up to become adults who were significantly susceptible to the negative adult health risk factors listed above. These traumatized children grow up with a reduced life expectancy of 14-20 years.

The data is clear: children who experience trauma endure toxic stress and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms that can lead to devastating adult health outcomes.  Absent protective relationships, adverse experiences overwhelm students’ brains with toxic levels of stress that generate dangerously high doses of adrenaline and cortisol. This is one of the reasons traumatized students are constantly in “fight or flight” mode, making the development of trusting, respectful, loving relationships seem impossible.

These ACE studies uncover and suggest why urban educators face more significant challenges than their suburban counterparts. The study of predominantly white, middle class, highly educated individuals conducted by Kaiser found that 6.2 percent of respondents had experienced greater than four adverse childhood experiences. Meanwhile, the more socioeconomically diverse Philadelphia study, found that 37 percent of respondents had experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences.

Are these urban students doomed? Does the data lead to the inevitability that urban schools are unlikely to succeed? Resiliency research offers hope. Resiliency studies show that 50-70 percent of youth growing up in these high-risk conditions can lead successful, healthy lives.

What makes this kind of difference to kids who otherwise seem doomed? Loving relationships. One loving relationship can make a difference between stress that is tolerable and stress that is toxic. Toxic stress is dangerously toxic because students lack a buffering, protective relationship that aids them in enduring trauma.

With proper support from school leaders, teachers in urban schools can create a loving environment that can serve to break the cycle of poverty, trauma, and abuse by offering buffering, protective, loving relationships. Schools may be the only regular place of safety and love for traumatized students. The love and care of teachers and school volunteers can build resiliency in the lives of students who will otherwise face devastating adult health outcomes.

Building a safe, buffering, culture of love is one of our primary goals at Logos Academy. We firmly believe love is the ground of a solid education. Educating a child in a culture devoid of love is like planting seed on hardened soil.

How we measure the success of urban schools will continue to be a matter of ongoing public debate. Standardized test scores should be one measure of success, but they most certainly should not be the only one. School culture matters.

We cannot afford for another generation of urban students to enter adulthood with damaged brains and hearts. Our community’s schools must be mobilized to love kids well, to make them feel safe and secure. Love has the power to heal hurting students. Love can heal urban education.

— Rev. Aaron J. Anderson is CEO and Head of School at Logos Academy, logosyork.org.