Executive Principal in Nashville Opens the Door to Better School Support

In Mathew Portell’s world, there’s no such thing as a bad kid. Portell is the executive principal at Nashville’s Fall-Hamilton Elementary School, an innovative trauma-informed pilot school for kids who have faced major challenges in their young lives, ranging from family disruption to abuse and neglect. He champions the idea that schools need to offer students not just an education but also a community support system to deal with trauma-induced stress.

In a two-part podcast, Portell talks about how trauma-informed education has become a life mission, and how the upcoming CableLabs’ 4Front Conference can further that cause. Calling himself an “unapologetic disruptor,” Portell started as an elementary school teacher specializing in teaching English as a second language (ESL) students, eventually moving into roles as a learning coach and as a school principal in a low-income area of suburban Nashville. Along the way, he saw plenty of cases of behavioral problems among his students but was frustrated that standard disciplinary approaches didn’t seem to work.

The game-changer came when he attended a lecture on groundbreaking 1998 research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente that found a link between childhood trauma and increased physical and mental health problems. The lecture introduced the idea that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), ranging from abuse to neglect, impacted students’ behavior—and bad behavior was a response to that stress.

Subsequent research has indicated that childhood trauma changes the structure of the hippocampus, amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex areas of the human brain, impacting the memory retrieval and “fight or flight” impulses. More recently, in a recent Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics article, a team of researchers found that children who are victims of physical abuse are more likely to need special education and repeat a grade—and are less likely to obtain an undergraduate college degree. The researchers also found that child-abuse victims as adults are less healthy and have an increased frequency of mental health disorders.

The ACE research set Portell on a new course. Within months of the lecture, he brought in ACE experts to talk to his teachers. Armed with a grant, he introduced a trauma therapist into his school to work with faculty and students. More recently, he founded Trauma-Informed Educators Network, a Facebook community of 26,000 people that now provides information and resources about trauma-informed education.

Today, Fall-Hamilton Elementary School has become a model for trauma-informed education, and Portell is regularly tapped to give presentations at conferences and events worldwide. And he continues to apply trauma-informed education philosophies and demonstrate the power of community in his daily work. For example, recently he learned that the mother of one of his students had been hospitalized with COVID-19. He immediately began to assemble a support system for the girl, and that included rallying his staff to gather gift cards and toys.

“And I think that’s where education has to shift,” Portell says. “We’re not trying to fix broken kids. What I’m actually trying to do is fix broken systems, because I’m going to be honest and tell you that our systems are broken for kids who don’t play by the norm.”

Looking ahead, Portell is also excited about the 4Front Conference. “I think educators—when given the information they’re going to receive at this conference—could truly, honestly, change the world in so many ways.”

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