Teaching the Neurodiverse with Jim Sporleder | EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS – Episode 06


 

In this episode, Hackie Reitman, M.D. interviews Jim Sporleder, the former principle of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington. That school and Jim’s tenure there are the subject of the new documentary “Paper Tiger.” Jim discusses the school’s amazing transformation, the revolutionary use of “trauma-informed” methods, and how he feels these methods can be used across the country.

To learn more about the documentary “Paper Tigers,” please visit: www.PaperTigersMovie.com

For organizations that offer information regarding “trauma-informed” teaching, please visit:   acestoohigh.com and www.avahealth.com

 

30 Second Preview:

 

To listen or download the podcast version of this episode, see the embedded player below.

Or look for us on your favorite podcast provider:

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud

 

View Full Transcript

HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

Hi, I’m Hackie Reitman and this is Exploring Different Brains. Today, we are speaking with Jim Sporleder, the former principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington; That school, and Jim’s tenure there are the subject of a new documentary: Paper Tiger. Hello, Jim.

JIM SPORLEDER (JS)

Good morning.

HR

Hey, thanks for coming on here. You know, I looked at the trailer from Paper Tiger and, man that seems like a very, very powerful documentary.

JS

Yeah it’s–I think Jamie Redford did an amazing job of taking Lincoln and using that as a lens to really show the bigger picture. Audiences are connecting to it personally, and it’s been a very powerful tool.

HR

Why don’t you tell us how you got involved in all of this?

JS

When I–It’s an interesting question. I was the principal at one of our middle schools, here in Walla Walla, and actually started my teaching career in Washington at Garrison Middle School. And I was in my 22nd year with every intention of retiring after 30, and feeling very blessed to be able to spend 30 years in the same building. But the district had a gentleman do an assessment on the alternative programs in our community. I don’t know why he came to see me, but he did, and left the report with me. It was several days before I picked it up and, once I read it, he did such an amazing job of putting a voice to the kids, to the teachers and to the community members. It was very painful to read. And I finally–I was having this tug, and I kept trying to ignore it, and finally realized that–I’m a person of faith, I felt like I was being called to go, so I asked the superintendent, who transferred me to what was–It was called Payne Alternative High School, we changed the name.

HR

What a play on words. And what happened when you went there?

JS

I actually went over for a two-day visit–they put an intern there, and in the two days that I was there, I had never seen such an out-of-control environment. Very unpredictable, unsafe, and after that two-day visit, I actually went back to the superintendent and asked to be transferred during the year, rather than waiting until the fall.

HR

So you are like one of these 9-1-1 rescuers who ran toward danger, and, unlike 98% of us who would say “those kids need to be locked up.” Now you discovered a whole different thing when you got to know these individuals and look a little bit closer.

JS

Well, you know, I’ve always been a relationship guy, and I felt that my relationship skills would help me make a smooth transition into Payne, and I got a good surprise. They didn’t throw out the red carpet. So, when I went over, you know, I’m a high-five guy and I would be the only one with the hand up. I’d go to fist bump–you know it’d look like I was doing a disco dance because no one was fist bumping back. I would sit down at the table at lunch or breakfast and try to start a conversation, and a lot of times they wouldn’t acknowledge that I was even there. So, the rejection was huge at first, and I just had to keep going–you know, moving forward I was very traditional in my discipline at that time, and I had, at that time–I really went in and I had to do quite a few arrests, it was very–had about five gangs represented in one building, and they had the control at the time. So it took me until probably May, before the kids started to see me as an advocate rather than the enemy.

HR

Now, what–tell us the demographic breakdown of Lincoln.

JS

We were–at that time, there were 75 kids on the enrollment, but we only had maybe a 45-50 daily average. Attendance was horrible. We were 32-36% minority, mostly Latino.

HR

So now, you’re trying to get accepted there, you’re there giving unreturned high-fives and fist bumps, you’re persistent, you’re a relationship guy, you’re a man of faith guy, then what happened?

JS

Well the–the report that the consultant wrote was done so well, and he was so thorough that I actually used that information to–when kids would come up–somebody would come up and say, “Can we talk?” and I’d bring them into my office and they would want to start complaining that I was being too strict and that I was trying to make Payne into Wall High, where they were kicked out, and I had to play the broken record and then I would just share back, “You say you don’t feel valued, I’m here to make sure you’re valued. You say you’re not safe, I’m here to create a safe learning environment for you. And then, they remembered that that they interviewed–his name’s Dan Calzoretta, and by just playing that over and over, they knew they had said it, so–I made some moves. I knew we needed to get a name change, it’s been in the district long enough to know that Payne was looked down upon. The whole bottom floor was barred up. It looked like a juvenile facility. So I had those bars removed, and the kids were coming up and saying, “What’s going on?” And I said, “Well, if you’re going to feel valued, do you want to come to a school that looks like a prison?” And so it was those kinds of conversations that I had with the kids that started to build that relationship.

HR

What were some of the changes that first took place at Lincoln? Like how’d it all get going?

JS

People sometimes maybe realize that we had to go through hell to get to the point to where we were at the time that Jamie came in to do the filming. But, about the third year that I was at Lincoln, we–I never felt the environment was safe enough for me to be gone, so it took three years before I finally accepted an invitation to hear Dr. John Medina speak at the Resilience of Hope conference in the spring of 2010, and, sitting in and hearing his keynote–actually, I don’t know how to explain it, I always tell people I got hit by a bolt of lightning, that it became apparent to me that my discipline was punitive and that was a very hard pill for me to swallow, because I always felt my discipline taught kids. And I had an education, I would never say a kid can’t do anything and we never say that it’s out of a students control, and Dr. Medina laid out the science that these kids that come in so highly stressed, it is out of their control when they’re working from the stem of their brain, and they can’t learn when in that high state of arousal. In 90 minutes, he turned my world upside-down, and then I went searching for the curriculum and was very frustrated because there wasn’t a curriculum, and so then I was trying to figure out how to take some of those principles of theory and determine the practical application.

HR

Now that you know so much, can you encapsulate, for our audience, what it is you’ve learned?

JS

You know, we started out with three basic principles, and we were fortunate to have Natalie Turner come down and do our first staff development piece, and we picked up some valuable information from her, and she’s out of Spokane, but the three principles that we started with, and I still feel like, today, if a school would apply these three principles that they would be a trauma-informed environment. Number one was is that you’ve got to drop your personal mirror, when these kids are going off, we tend to take things personally, and I know I did in my traditional mold–you know, if a kid told me to “F” off, you know, it was like you better put your seatbelt on, cause you’re going to hear–you’re not going to talk to me that way. Once we learned–once you learn to put that personal mirror down and realize it’s not about you, it gives you so much freedom and you stay regulated. But then, the second principle is to help de-escalate the student. So, I wouldn’t even deal with a student until they were regulated. And I would share with them, I want to give you time to come down, because it wouldn’t be respectful if I tried to problem solve with you now–your brain is not in a place to be able to do that, and I would say it in an empathetic way, not a judgment way. And as kids–just surprise me, I mean within 10 minutes, kids would be calm enough that I could start problem solving and I starting asking them what was going on, where in my traditional mold I would tell them what the expectations were and then I would tell them what the consequences were and I’d try to give them some kind of life lesson that, I know now, didn’t mean anything. But as they began to deescalate, and then I began to ask, “What brought that on today? You look really up-tight; how can we help you?” Kids just start pouring out stuff that was going on in their life.

HR

And you, by connecting with them–which is one of the first principles–and establishing a relationship and showing understanding, then what happened?

JS

This is another thing that I’m learning as I’m on the outside looking in now, is that these kids–when you are in that environment of asking them, “What’s going on?” And they’re sharing with you and you’re validating their feelings, you’re not validating the action. To me, that’s where the relationship really starts to develop. So for me, as an administrator, my relationships with the kids and my connections with the kids–you know I was highly visible, I was always out there with all of the kids, but it’s those kids that the revolving door that I really had a chance to start building some deep-seeded relationships. Because, like you said, we know that if these kids have a caring adult in their lives, then there’s influence to change a life path. And that’s the third principle, is being aware that I have a chance to help a student change their life path by role modeling and teaching them and allowing them to develop those resiliency skills. And that’s the result that was started to see. And then, at 2009, after our first year of implementation, the results were so positive and so motivating that we were on the right track, Jane Stevens from AcesTooHigh.com, she heard about us and did an article on us and that went viral. Today, I think she’s had over 800,000 hits just off of the site alone. So that–It was us going viral that caught Jamie’s attention, and when he went to talk to Jane, and when they were looking at doing this film, he also talked to Dr. Filetti, and Dr. Filetti suggested that he visit Lincoln. So it was that article that caught Jamie’s attention to come see us.

HR

We’re talking here with Jim Sporleder here at Exploring Different Brains, the former principle of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington. The school in Jim’s tenure there are the subject of a new documentary, “Paper Tiger,” by Jamie Redford, and Jim has been taking us on this great journey of understanding, where, basically–Jim, now tell me if I’m describing this correctly from the neurodiversity point of view. What you started doing was kind of looking at it through the individuals’ brains, as opposed to your reactions to it, and starting to look for reasons why that brain would function to give the result of the rage or–you know, whatever behavior they were outlying, and you started the terminology, with your colleagues, of the–to become trauma-informed. To become a trauma-informed school, where you recognize that many times it is beyond the control of the individual for the conditions that lead up to it, and if you want to be effective, and you want to effect positive change and behavior with positive outcomes, then don’t take it personal, look for the causes and try to help that individual move forward. What would you add to what I just said for that?

JS

I think you covered it very well. The last piece of the process is when you’ve problem solved, you’ve asked where you can support them or what do they need right then to help them with that situation. Sometimes, you know, I would offer counseling through our health centers, some would accept it, some would say, “No, I’ll let you know,” but the other piece that’s so important is–that’s when I would bring in the accountability piece, and I would just simply say, “Hey, you told so-and-so ‘F’ off, you know, we need to take care of this. What do you think a fair consequence would be?” They were always harder on themselves than I would be. The consequences and the accountability came at the end of the conversation, when they were able to–when they were regulated, they were problem solving. And you don’t have–kids, when they make mistakes, and you show them empathy, and you listen to them and they feel valued and cared for, the consequences are expected. I rare–nothings 100% but rarely did I have a student argue a consequence.

HR

Some of our viewers and listeners out there, Jim, might be a little bit skeptical. Why don’t you tell out audience about your results. What were the outcomes, what were the results that you can measure? What did you see for changes?

JS

We saw our–we put tools in place and options in place so that we were able to help kids, within what I would call a trauma-informed environment, and we approached it as an entire staff. So my cook, my custodian, our parents, educators, the secretaries, they were just as important a part of the circle of support as anyone else. And so the kids began to start–they referred to us as “The Lincoln Family,” and that’s kind of how we would project to them. We’re a family, family takes care of family members, when we have family hurting, then we want to bring support for that family member. And so the culture that started–what was represented in our data–the discipline referrals, I know the first year went from 600 to, I think it was 320. 800 days of out of schools went to 135, and all of this was reported in Jane’s article, but what I find fascinating is that, with a trauma-informed model, you know, we were the first high school in the country to implement a trauma-informed model–is that the kids, and your interactions with the kids, give you such a different perspective and an understanding, and when you see them starting to connect and starting to see them change and engage, and feel proud about their environment, is some motivator, and you’re learning and your skills in dealing with kids get better and better with each year. After that article, our kids that year averaged 3.5 ACES and we were able to determine that through a student survey that was anonymous, and we also gave the kids the opportunities to opt-out if they didn’t want to take it. But, after the article, the data continuously improved, but the ACE scores went up. So the following year, we went from 3.5 to 4.5 ACES, and our data continued to improve to the last year, 2013, our kids were at 5.5, and you can imagine–you become like a trauma hospital. We were dealing with crises, a lot of crises. And even at a 5.5 ACE score, the data dropped again, and Dario Long and I did a case study and wrapped the science protocols around his research, and found–he has come out and has shown that, in a trauma-informed environment, because of the nurturing, the positive adult relationships, the sense of family, these kids start developing an optimism from their future. So they’re going from hopelessness to hope, and, in his case studies, 70% of those kids averaging 5.5 ACES, and he tracked them clear back to 8th grade, and test scores, attendance, behavior and all of that is–he showed that 70% of the case load, or case study, those kids were performing as if they had 0 ACES. So it’s pretty strong research, and for me, it’s a strong advocacy for why we need a new approach in our system to handling our kids in these crisis moments.

HR

And this has come to be called the trauma-informed method. And how much of this trauma-informed approach is being adopted across the country?

JS

I think there’s more and more schools that are seeing that this a direction that we need to go. It’s hard to have a sense of how many, and I think–my experience now, traveling, as it tends to be more elementary schools right now that are a little bit more open to the concept, and I know there’s a couple of high schools in the country that have implemented a trauma-informed model and have seen just as positive impact that we had experienced as well.

HR

You know, Jim, at the–we’re here in Ft. Lauderdale, and at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, which I’ve been active with for awhile, and when we measure outcomes, we use such things as–you know, get promotion to the next grade level, high school graduation kind of thing. And for instance, in our county, and this is something I discussed years ago with the Broward county Commission, they had a huge budget and their graduation rate for, say, African-American males was thirty six percent. And our graduation rate at the Boys and Girls club was somewhere near ninety percent. And um, when you measure the outcomes, like what are some of the kids going on to do?

JS

Well it’s hard to measure once they move on outside of that environment, because you have a new class coming in. I’m currently involved with another–with Brooke, who’s in the film, she was our intervention specialist, just amazing person, she and I are working with Lincoln alumni right now. And what I have learned is is that when you say you’re a family, and you love them unconditionally, what worse thing is, is those kids who fail in that family environment feel safe coming back now at 22 years old or 23, and saying, “Man, I really need some help.” Or, they come back and say, you know, “I was on meth, I never made it through Lincoln, but I want you to know I’m off meth.” You know, and they really want to share their successes. So, my learning is, you never give up on a student. You continuously love them unconditionally, and that opens up the opportunity that whenever that time comes, that they’re able to have the resiliency to start making some of these changes in their lives to put them on a positive path. They’re comfortable coming back and asking for help, and they want to stay connected.

HR

Now, would you label this Post-traumatic stress syndrome?

JS

You know, I’m not a–I don’t consider myself a mental health expert, so I’m just kind of common lay person. I think your numbers that you and I have talked about, the 90% of kids going to college is just remarkable, and I think that, alone could be the model of showing, because their afterschool programs–what are you doing that is taking you up to a 90% graduation rate that a school could be doing? I want to also share that I don’t want to give the impression that we were hitting 100% of our kids either, so, you know, when kids have that kind of trauma in their lives, and they’re 16, 17, 18, it’s really hard work. So our graduation rates went way up, but at the same time I want to say that we, by no means, were 100%, and the work was never ending.

HR

Tell us about the Children’s Resilience Initiative.

JS

The Children’s Resilience Initiative has been around in Walla Walla, I believe it goes back to about 2008, it’s under the leadership of Terry Barilla. At one point in time, Washington State was way out front leading the nation in trauma-awareness and ACES. In fact, we were the first state that actually surveyed our citizens and we had incredible data, and that was under the leadership of Laura Porter. So we had 124 networks across the state, and then they lost funding at the peak of their work, and it has been very devastating. We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to keep Terry funded and, in our community, the last time we surveyed, 40% of our community acknowledged that they had been exposed to the ACE information. And our community partners are extremely–have brought in CP, Child Protective Services, Juvenile Justice, our penitentiary, Casa, Children’s Home Society–so our partners are coming together, not in silos–they’re working together, and it’s a powerful model for really being able to wrap around services for kids and families.

HR

Now, as we look at the whole spectrum of neurodiversity, I don’t mean Autism Spectrum, I mean all of us have different brains, so if we look at autism, Asperger’s, PTSD, different kinds of stress, anxiety, other mental as well as neurological conditions–would you say that in the neurodiversity that you saw there amongst the students at Lincoln, most if it was related to what you would call under the banner of trauma?

JS

Well we had this school districts behavior classroom located in our building. So when you looked at our enrollment, 25% special ed, we were about that. 32-36% minority, and my last year we were 25% homeless, and that’s what kind of makes some of that research that Dario did was with that kind of percentages. We didn’t–I would say most of our kids were dealing with such issues at home, that we were dealing with a lot more behavior issues and situations, and–but we did have one young man that was autistic with Asperger’s that was being harassed so bad at the other school that they transferred him to Lincoln, and he had pretty rough go for a little while, and then he just caught on and it was so exciting to see his growth. In fact, in Paper Tigers, at the end of the film, as the kids, the graduates are going through the isles, he’s in the very back and gives somebody in the audience a high-five. So it was just–it’s special.

HR

We want to tell our viewers to go to the website, PaperTigersMovie.com and they can see where screenings are and how to see the movie and get the movie and everything, what other websites can we send our viewers and listeners to, here at Different Brains, Jim?

JS

I think AcesTooHigh.com is one of the top resources in the country, and I just met the developer of AVAHealth.com, which really looks into trauma, and they’re connecting on a worldwide outreach, as far as researchers in other countries in kind of pulling that data together. I think that’s an excellent website as well.

HR

Before we wrap up here, what–what parts during this interview of the overall gestalt of what you’re doing, because I know how dedicated you are, you’re traveling around, you’re talking to different people, you’re doing so much for so many, what parts of the mosaic are we missing or have we missed in this interview, that you might want our listeners and viewers to know about?

JS

I think you’ve asked excellent questions, Hackie, I guess one of my concerns, and even I would say frustrations, is that, when you–when we use the word trauma-informed, I wish we could change that, it’s the national terminology, but I’ve experienced time and time again that when you speak about trauma-informed, people want to immediately go to a part of our society and label them as the trauma-informed people, versus the understanding that all of us can have trauma. It’s not just our minorities, it’s not just our poverty, our affluent can have some serious trauma going on and in the home, and so trauma gets misrepresented I think, from the school side, we’re in a high-stakes testing environment, very punitive educational policy coming down. We’re judging teachers, we’re judging kids, so the stress level in our schools is really off the charts, and it goes against what the research is telling us, on how we should be approaching these kids. We’re setting these kids on–we’re setting them up for failure and we’re setting them up for escalation.

HR

Well, you know, you and I spoke–when we spoke previously, it would seem to me, as a lay person, and I’m certainly relatively ignorant to everything you know about all this stuff, but it would seem that some of the same principles might apply in a positive fashion to our prison system. Do you have any thoughts on that?

JS

Well Terry and Brooke did a class at our state penitentiary, here in Walla Walla, and the inmates that came in, every single one of them walked up and looked down and said, “I’m a 10. I’m a 10. I’m a 10.” Referring to that they had all 10 ACE’s.

HR

Where can we read about all of these aces, there was a website you mentioned?

JS

Yeah, the ACE’s, if anybody googled ACE’s they could find all types of information because the ACE study is still going on today as the longest longitudinal study in the country.

HR

So you spelled it A-C-E-S?

JS

Yes, capital ACE’s, or, I mean it stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

HR

Adverse Childhood Experiences, okay. Any other advice for whoever might be watching this and how they can go into their community and do positive things or in their family, or, if they’re a traumatized individual or parent of such an individual, and I know there’s tremendous overlap with stress and anxiety and all other things that affect our behavior.

JS

You know, I guess I would quote Dr. Anda, the co-founder of the study, is that we have so much research and information on what we need to do in order to turn our society around, not just our schools but our entire society around, that to not put these principles into practice is ignoring and actually irresponsible, because the depth of the research tells us that our traditional methods aren’t working, our punitive measurements, or punitive policies are not working. So this new approach is good for everybody. It’s how everybody should be treated. There’s no social economic barriers, there’s no racial barriers, gender barriers, it’s treating people like they deserve to be treated, and how we all want to be treated.

HR

That is an excellent summation. And what would you like to call that? Is it being called now trauma-informed, or what would you like to see it be called, that excellent summation you just gave, a way of looking at things.

JS

Well, I don’t know what else to call it to be honest with you, because I want to be aligned with our national vocabulary in conversation. I like to–you have to present–and I’m only a lay man, but you have to present the science background, for me, in lay terms, so that people can get the understanding of why we need to change, and then we’ve got to be able to start showing them how to change their environment. And that’s the, I would call, the barrier. I think we have a lot of folks who understand the why, they are having really a lot of difficulty on the how. How do I put this into my daily practice? And those three concepts I gave you, sometimes when I share them, I think people think that it sounds too simple. From my perspective, we make it more complicated than it needs to be.

HR

You’ve been a great, great interview today and you’ve really brought to the floor something that is in our overall society, not just the school, not just the classroom, it’s kind of under the surface, and it needs–we need to re-examine the way we look at all of these things and what we do about them, and I’m sure there’s a bit of controversy that follows you around too, but you can’t argue with good results, and you can’t argue with positive outcomes, and I want to salute you for all you’re doing, and keep up the great work. So thank you very much, we’ve been talking with Jim Sporleder, and he’s the former principle of Lincoln High in Walla Walla, Washington, the school in Jim’s tenure there are the subject of the new documentary, “Paper Tigers,” which you can look up online and that’s by Jamie Redford, and it’s really really an extraordinary story, and we can all learn something from this. So Jim, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

JS

I appreciate the opportunity, and want to thank you for your work, and we’re all on the same team as I see it, and as we support one another, we all have a role to play.

HR

All right, great. All right, you have a good one, Jim.

JS

Thank you.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *