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United Way, UNI center and Waterloo Schools partner on trauma-informed student program
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United Way, UNI center and Waterloo Schools partner on trauma-informed student program

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WATERLOO — The everyday demands of school life can be difficult for many students. Some carry more than a backpack full of books when they show up for class each day.

According to 2019 data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one in five Iowa students carry the added emotional weight of neglect, abuse or other traumas — adverse childhood experiences, commonly known as ACEs. Research has shown that ACEs can impact youths’ ability to learn and grow in school and — if left unaddressed — can contribute to long-term health consequences in adulthood.

But a multi-year grant from Cedar Valley United Way will help address the problem in Waterloo Community Schools. The University of Northern Iowa said in a news release the grant will fund a new partnership between its Center for Educational Transformation and the district. The program — We Can! Building Relationships and Resilience — will center on separate but related offerings to develop a system of trauma-informed care in school and at home.

Debbie Roth, senior director of community resources at Cedar Valley United Way, said mental health services have emerged in recent years as one of the community’s highest priority needs.

“Adverse childhood experiences and building resiliency are a very large piece of that work,” Roth said. “Cedar Valley United Way is supporting ‘We Can!’ because it looks at addressing ACEs systemically and multi-generationally, both of which have great potential for lasting impact in the Cedar Valley.”

The economic, cultural and health impacts of the pandemic have added even greater urgency for trauma-informed training, according to Lisa Hooper, a researcher and director of the UNI center. Hooper estimates many Waterloo Schools’ students may now be dealing with under-addressed ACEs.

Gina Weekley, at-risk student support coordinator at Lincoln Elementary School in Waterloo, agreed that the “We Can!” project is especially needed following the past year.

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“There is no time like the present to provide trauma-informed approaches and training, as all persons have experienced some level of trauma during this pandemic and social unrest,” Weekley said. “This effort will positively impact Waterloo schools and change the life trajectory of vulnerable students and their families.”

“We Can!” arose out of the work begun in 2018 between Hooper and Armeda Stevenson Wojciak, a University of Minnesota associate professor formerly at the University of Iowa. Wojciak started it as a school-oriented program that has now been expanded to parents. It will also be tailored to the specific needs of the Waterloo district.

Pilot trainings of the program conducted by Wojciak from 2015 to 2020 for educators demonstrated promising results, including a 75% reduction in office referrals as well as reductions in chronic absenteeism at one school district. Following efforts to gauge interest in bringing “We Can!” to Waterloo Schools, Hooper and Wojciak have been meeting with parents virtually since January to move the work forward.

“Over the years, school personnel have always wanted to know how to engage parents in what they were learning. In our meeting with the Waterloo community, the parents were asking the same thing and said that they wanted to be part of that,” Wojciak said. “After the meeting, we knew we had committed parents to work with to not only co-develop ‘We Can! Parents,’ but to also ensure we were culturally tailoring ‘We Can!’ for the Waterloo community, an important aspect in successful programs and partnerships.”

Another necessary component is how the cultural and racial strengths of the community are infused into programs, Hooper said.

We Can! Building Relationships and Resilience will be a long-term project involving partnerships outside of education to expand trauma-informed training in the Cedar Valley. Hooper said United Way and other community funding will allow the program to be implemented in all 11 Waterloo public elementary schools over the next several years.

Understanding and addressing the academic and socio-emotional needs of learners dealing with trauma will take a “paradigm shift at the staff and organizational level” of the school system, Weekley acknowledged, but will better equip adults to “parent, teach and lead.”

Those interested in becoming involved with “We Can! Parents” may reach out to Hooper at lisa.hooper@uni.edu and Wojciak at awojciak@umn.edu.

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