Featured Fellow: Addressing Trauma with Joan Cavallo, St. Albans City School Principal

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

In her 12 years at St. Albans City School, a Pre-K-8 school of 800 students, Joan Cavallo has been adapting her leadership to meet the needs of her students. St. Albans City, a high poverty area, has significant needs for mental health support. The school realized that it must create a compassionate school community in order to serve the students holistically. They have implemented an impressive array of programs to “create an environment that is safe and loving while providing academic rigor that students can access.”

A Principal Who Consistently Rises to the Occasion

Joan is a leader in Vermont’s educational community. As a member of the Vermont Principal’s Association, she is helping drive the statewide conversation about the social emotional needs of students, staff, and school communities. She’s also collaborating with RiseVT, a community wellness initiative that encourages healthy environments in which Vermonters can thrive. This collaboration provides students with many wellness options at school such as gaga pits, classroom fitness and nutrition activities, and increased supports for school gardens.

Joan reminds us that this work cannot be done alone or overnight. The key is to find community partners willing to collaborate, provide funding, or share expertise. The most important stakeholders are the school staff.  As a leader she finds it is important to be “part of the team that does the on-the-ground work self, working directly with students in academic and supportive ways.”

The Journey of Addressing Trauma at St. Albans City School

About seven years ago, Joan realized that trauma was affecting students in ways that she and her staff could not handle alone. She brought in a trauma consultant who helped guide Joan in transforming to become a trauma-responsive school. “Our trauma consultant helped us see behavior in a whole new way and helped us understand how to support behaviors that we really don’t like talking about.  A few years later, we started in an early childhood expansion pilot with First School, where we learned about Conscious Discipline. We are now in our fourth year of implementation.”

Joan has learned that there is no one-size-fits-all or one-time solution. Instead, she has discovered that the most effective response to trauma is to address both its underlying causes in the community and how teachers can appropriately respond to its effects on students. St. Albans City School now has a comprehensive set of initiatives to support both student and staff wellness, including:

  • Conscious Discipline training for staff – with refreshers through in-service and faculty meetings
  • Resiliency training for all school staff with licensed psychologist Joelle Van Lent
  • Resiliency Leadership Team to create a deeper level of knowledge and support the whole school in being accountable to resilient practices
  • Train the trainer model for staff training in restorative practices
  • Staff training in equity in education with Rebecca Haslam, professor of education at St. Michael’s College
  • Analysis of the School Cultural Analytic Tool for Educators results to improve school culture
  • Fun, community building activities for staff during professional development days

St. Albans City School also takes the time to celebrate successes, “to notice each other and when people are really making things work.” The school gives the clear message to anyone who enters the building that we are all in this together. Joan has learned through this process that “to take care of children, we also need to take care of each other.” Despite high staff turnover that is typical of this challenging district, Joan has cultivated a professional learning community where new teachers are intentionally integrated into the school community. She is intent on ensuring that new teachers receive the same background information and training that she has been providing for staff that have been with her for the seven-year journey of becoming more trauma-responsive.

Personalized Support

At a reflection session at the end of last school year, Joan and her staff realized that there was still a missing puzzle piece in their delivery of trauma-responsive education. Students had better regulation skills and staff were better informed on how to support students experiencing trauma, but they still wanted something to bring the school together around normed language and expectations. A single conversation sparked the idea of creating a children’s book starring the school mascot, a penguin named Raider. Staff came together to create Raider Learns to Own It, Fix It, and Move On. Using characters, locations, and situations familiar to each student in the school, Joan and her staff wrote and illustrated a story that made all of the great work they’d been doing concrete for students. Students and staff now had a common language to use when a problem arose, “Have you owned it? Fixed it? Moved on?”

Leadership Outside the School Building

Joan’s not content with just improving the well-being of her students and staff; she wants to change the way Vermont addresses student mental health and trauma. She is part of a collaboration between the Vermont Principal’s Association and Prevent Child Abuse Vermont to help schools work better at identifying and addressing the social emotional needs of children.

She’s also been in meetings with the Vermont Governor’s Liaison who she’s lobbying to bring Vermont’s Agency of Education and Agency of Human Services together to bridge the divide between the two agencies in an effort to better support students, especially those who have adverse childhood experiences. Joan is “determined that we can work within existing laws by moving back to the spirit of the laws and not just the letter of the law,” which has led to ineffective bureaucracy rather than providing the intended assistance to students in need.

When asked about her work in the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative, Joan said it has “validated the work we are doing and my personal journey. It is also furthering my learning and sometimes it makes me question and reflect.  It makes me aware that the issues the children in my school are facing are common across schools and states.”

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