The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.
For Lateshia Woodley, a relentless focus on supporting students facing trauma comes from her own lived experience.
Her mother had her at 13, so Woodley was raised by her grandmother in subsidized housing outside Atlanta. Her grandmother didn’t have a car, so when Woodley started in after-school activities, she was sent to live with a relative who had one.
There, she says, she was sexually assaulted by a family member. She had to drop out of all her after-school activities to move back in with her grandmother, and soon after, she tried to kill herself. None of her teachers noticed Woodley’s sudden lack of engagement in school—or the trauma she was going through.
Now, Woodley, 44, serves as the educator that she didn’t have for thousands of students in Kansas City, Mo.
Over the past four years, the Kansas City district’s assistant superintendent of student support and her team have focused on building a trauma-informed school system. That means recognizing and addressing factors in students’ lives that might prevent them from learning or being involved in school and ensuring that, at school, they are surrounded by supportive adults.
There are many potential stumbling blocks in this majority-Black school district, where all 14,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“We have a lot of challenges in the city that our students are faced with. We’re talking about abuse, neglect, parents that suffer from mental illness, homelessness, all those different factors that affect the outcomes of students,” Woodley said.
“How do we increase supports so students are getting their social-emotional needs met, so that we can get to the academic outcomes that we need?”
Building a trauma-sensitive school district
Over the past four years, Woodley and her team have implemented a series of initiatives to address those needs so that students feel safe and welcome in school. Data broadly indicateshe is meeting that goal.
So far, under Woodley’s leadership, more than half of Kansas City schools have demonstrated improvements in students’ English/language arts and math scores, 56 percent reduced the number of out-of-school suspensions, and 60 percent of schools increased their attendance rates. The state voted to restore Kansas City’s full accreditation in January, which the district first lost more than 20 years ago.
- Cultivate the Collective Genius of Your Team: Working to transform the lives of students and families presents many adaptive challenges. I have experienced the most success when I have been supported by an amazing team that was able to collaborate regardless of position or title to create circles of supports to ensure student success.
- Understand That the Community Has the Resources to Heal Itself: As educators we have dedicated many years of our lives to education and professional learning to be qualified to make decisions we feel are in the best interests of students and families. I found that the best professional learning is taking the time to listen to the heartbeat of students by empowering student voice and student advocacy.
- Leverage the Power of Your Story and Build Relationships: Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self. When you are willing to be transparent and share your story, your students, staff, and parents will get to know you, what you value, and why you make the decisions the way you do.
It starts with making sure students have access to professionals who are well trained to recognize and respond to students experiencing such trauma as abuse, neglect, or violence.
When she came to the district in 2018, Woodley pushed to hire licensed clinical social workers and professional counselors to monitor students’ well-being and offer intervention and therapy as needed in every school building, which there was an absence of before she took the job.
If a student displays any signs of distress, they are referred to a clinician and assessed using a social-emotional learning questionnaire. The screener asks questions about different domains across students’ lives, including emotional management, and both physical and environmental safety. The district also has a suicide screener that alerts Woodley’s team if any student Googles self-harm terminology on their school laptops.
Woodley worked with Travanna Alexander-Toney, the district’s behavioral-health manager, to develop the questions for the screener. Under her leadership, the district also collects data every month on student responses to the social-emotional screener and other reports of students undergoing trauma such as emotional abuse or physical or sexual assault.
These monthly data allow Woodley and Alexander-Toney’s team to look for trends in traumatic student experiences and train educators to respond to them.
After students returned to Kansas City classrooms in person this year, the district found increased reports of sexual abuse during remote schooling and an increased percentage of students that had looked up self-harm on the internet during the same period, Alexander-Toney said.
Melissa Sadin, the director of the Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools Initiative, a national group that trains school and district staff, said Woodley’s work to build trauma-sensitive schools aligns with best practices for sustainability, including working with teachers to recognize trauma response, creating community partnerships, and hiring social workers.
The ideal trauma-informed district will have no need to suspend students—unless it’s for possession of weapons or drugs as required by law—because it will have successfully built a school environment where the underlying causes of students’ disruptive behavior is understood and addressed, Sadin said.
Although stopping suspensions altogether is especially hard in urban districts, Woodley’s body of work sends an important message to students: that she values them and will do anything she can to help them through school, she said.
“What she’s doing is telling the kids she cares about them,” Sadin said.
Woodley’s motivation to do this work has always been to be the educator she needed growing up.
“I often wonder how my life would have been different as a result of adults understanding what was going on with me socially, emotionally, and having to navigate the dysfunction of our world,” she said. “That’s why I’m passionate about this work and leading this work that we do in Kansas City.”
A history of transforming alternative schools
Woodley’s approach in Kansas City is built on years working in alternative education with some of Atlanta’s most underserved children.
She started her career as a school counselor at an alternative school in Atlanta, now known as the New School of Carver, and worked her way up to principal of McLarin High School, which she had also attended.
As a counselor, she saw firsthand how life challenges could derail young people’s learning trajectories and took steps to remove those obstacles.
At Carver, for instance, she met Dewanna Cuthbert, then a junior who was pregnant with her daughter.
Woodley went above and beyond her role as a school counselor, bringing Cuthbert her school assignments and helping her manage postpartum issues, ensuring she stayed on track to graduate, the former student said. She introduced her to other teenage mothers in Atlanta and built a peer-support group, where Cuthbert found some long-lasting friends.
Woodley also offered the young moms tangible resources, such as diapers for their kids, Cuthbert said.
“She really was like a lifeline for me at that time,” Cuthbert said. “She went to bat for me and really opened the door for me to get on the trajectory of where I am now.”
By 2010, Woodley had become an assistant principal of an alternative school for older students wanting to get their high school diplomas, and in 2013, she took on leadership of McLarin High School. Both were on the state’s lowest-performing-schools list when she assumed leadership, according to Lyn Wenzel, a former district school improvement specialist for the Georgia education department. But by the time she left, both had improved enough to exit the list.
“The cards are stacked against those schools to get off the list, but that didn’t deter her,” Wenzel said. “She knew that if kids could set some personal goals and if you put that support in place in order to reach those, … [better] test scores would just be a byproduct.”
One important support for teachers: Woodley offered personalized professional development for her staff by analyzing their strengths and weaknesses.
“She knew how to recognize the talents of each person on her faculty and she definitely gave us opportunities to shine,” said Marquita Blades, who worked at McLarin as a teacher when Woodley was principal.
“So she wasn’t a leader who thought that she knew best when it came to everything.”
Blades said Woodley allowed her to sit in on district-level instructional meetings and let her present instructional strategies that worked well in her classroom to high school faculty. She also supported Blades when the teacher needed to take extra time off for her health.
Employees were happy to put in the extra work because Woodley led by example, Blades said.
“It didn’t feel like she was giving us extra things to do. It was more like, ‘This is what I plan on doing for the kids. Now, who wants to jump in with me?’” she said.
Woodley also built community partnerships to get students’ housing, jobs, clothing, and other needs met. When students needed jobs, for example, she partnered with some of Atlanta’s largest employers, such as Delta Airlines, to help them work while they finished their high school education. Improved academic outcomes and student attendance followed, Wenzel said.
At McLarin, Woodley worked with the chairman of the National Dropout Prevention Center, Sandy Addis. Using some of the same steps as she had in Atlanta, like personalized training, data analysis, and meeting students’ social-emotional needs, McLarin’s graduation rate went from 19 percent to 75 percent in three years, an outstanding achievement for an Atlanta-based alternative school, Addis said.
“She allowed the faculty to decide what they needed to do differently,” he said. “She facilitated their conversation of determining action steps, and then they owned those action steps, and that made all the difference.”
Expanding supports for Kansas City schools
In Kansas City, Woodley continues to expand on her student-centric approach while keeping in mind that educators have also been through a traumatic year. She has been a big advocate for supporting teachers as they support students, Alexander-Toney said.
Woodley is now leading the district’s most recent work: hiring restorative-justice coordinators to work within its multitiered system to respond to student behavior.
Within the next four years, the district aims to put a restorative-justice coordinator in every one of its 35 buildings to work with students on resolving conflicts—physical, verbal, in person, online—before they are disciplined.
Responding to an increase in school violence, Kansas City also put into place a homicide screener much like its self-harm alert, which sends an email to Woodley’s team if a student searches the internet with the intent to cause violence.
As in Atlanta, Woodley’s goal isn’t just to drive up test scores. It’s based in the knowledge that when kids feel safer and happier, they’ll do better academically.
“She’s going to make change, not just make the numbers look good so she can go get a different job,” Sadin said. “She’s making sure that the foundation is really strong and sustainable … for a resilient community.”
“In every academic indicator, we have seen improvements over the last few years,” Woodley said. “It is proof that if you focus on the social-emotional needs of kids, the academic improvement will increase.”
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Putting Students’ Welfare First Can Transform Schools Along the Way