Quashnet Elementary School

By Sean Corcoran

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

With about 600 students in grades three through six, the Quashnet School in Mashpee is bigger than many of the Cape's high schools. Students come from all different ethnic and financial backgrounds, and with such a large and varied population, administrators are faced with the challenge of creating a sense of safety and community here.

Each morning around 8:25, four students go down to the principal's office at the Quashnet School and gather around a loudspeaker microphone for the Pledge of Allegiance.

In addition to the Pledge, the joke of the day and the rundown on the lunch menu, the program also includes the recitation of the student creed, which the school's new principal, Jeff Dees, wrote himself and introduced to students in the fall.

Jeff Dees: "The creed just states that it's a place of learning, and a place of high performance, high expectations. And that every day is a new day and we start every day brand new; we don't hold any grudges. And we try to work on individuals as they try to go through life. We are a three through six grade building, and I believe this is the most important time in their lives for us to really set a foundation for school and life."

About five years ago, Mashpee reorganized its school populations and the number of students at the Quashnet jumped to about 850. That's a lot of kids for an elementary school. Staff members say the increase in size created significant challenges. That need for a safe sense of community grew more important than ever. With that in mind, last spring, a group of school and community leaders asked the Massachusetts department of education for a $25,000 grant through the state's PBS initiative -- the Positive Behavioral Support Program. Some of the grant money will pay for such things as anti- bullying and peer intervention programs. The majority of the funding, though -- $15,000 -- is geared toward helping traumatized children learn.

Anita Lichman is the regional director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a private non-profit that helped write the grant for the Quashnet School.

Anita Lichman: "The idea is that...we have everybody -- administration, teachers, parent aides or bus monitors -- everybody understanding what trauma might look like in a kid. So that when a kid is having a hard time focussing or not following instructions routinely through the course of a school year, it might prompt these professionals to say, 'My goodness, what is going on with this child?' Rather than suspending or expelling the student, saying, there might be a different way to approach this child to actually keep them in a safe place -- school -- and help them to focus and learn and feel safe."

The symptoms of trauma can show up in very different ways: defiance, difficulty paying attention or an obsession with being perfect -- all are common signs. Nationally, the MSPCC says about thirty-five percent of school children are estimated to have been affected by non lethal violence. It's now known exactly what the percentage is at Quashnet -- but the school is being proactive on the issue.

Nancy Kerrigan, is a guidance counselor at Quashnet. It was Kerrigan that first heard about the grant, and she brought it to the attention of the Mashpee School System's Violence Prevention Team. From there, the MSPCC became involved, as did the Cape Cod Dispute Resolution Center. Kerrigan said that along with its dispute resolution program, pier mediation and character education, this new training and awareness program is benefitting all of Quashnet.

Nancy Kerrigan: "In order for children to learn, they need to be in an environment that they feel safe and they feel supported, so our school community is working toward creating that. It benefits everyone, but it especially allows children who have been traumatized the opportunity to be able to learn."

In an attempt to reach the caregivers of traumatized children, the program also reaches outside the Quashnet School walls and into the community. Deb Berglin, the MSPCC's clinical director, says that this month thereaupeutic sessions will be held at Mashpee Village, a nearby housing development, where some of the most at-risk Quashnet students live.

Deb Berglin: "One of the things that we know about children who have been traumatized is that often they come from families that are exceptionally stressed, and sometimes come from parents who also have experienced trauma, and who struggle with supporting their children both at home and at school. So we wanted to provide a group that was free for parents, that provided child care, dinner, so they didn't have to worry about their children, where we could support the parents in the work they are trying to do in their own famililes, as well as educating them about the affects of trauma on children and families."

For principal Dees, all of the training and support work has the same goal: To let the children know that when they reach the school's doorway each morning, they have arrived at a safe place of learning and respect.

Broadcast January 12, 2006

Sean Corcoran reports for the Cape and islands NPR Stations