Study shows impact of stress on learning for inner-city kids

The violence on city streets takes its toll on the young. A new survey by Bay Area researchers shows that one out of six of the sixth grade students they looked at suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Some kids are coping with a lot of stress both in and out of their homes.

"When I hear the gunshots, I get to the floor because you never know when a bullet is going to come through the window," said 20-year-old Richmond resident Calvanay Nunley. "I just wonder like who's next? Am I next?"

"I pretty much raised myself since I was five-years-old," said 21-year-old Zenaila Barr. "My mom had a heart attack. They revived her, but she had brain damage."

Imagine experiencing that, then going to school and trying to focus on learning.

"They're like balloons," said San Francisco's Omega Boys Club founder Joe Marshall. "Eventually they're going to pop if you don't let some of that stuff out."

For 25 years, Marshall has helped inner city young people deal with post traumatic stress to deflate those balloons.
"Our results have shown once you can help them do that, resolve those issues, help them deal with that balloon themselves, their academics take off," explained Marshall.

Now, thanks to a federally funded study that just began in San Francisco, more students in public schools may be getting that help.

The study by SRI International Researchers in Menlo Park focuses on incoming middle school students starting the 6th grade. If parents give permission, students first answer questions about the trauma they've experienced. Then indicate if they're having symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as nightmares, flashbacks, fear, guilt, withdrawal, rage.

"What this has been able to do is identify students we wouldn't have known about otherwise," said Erika Rubinstein Stine, a social worker at Aptos Middle School in San Francisco.

16 percent of the students tested scored high in post-traumatic stress.  That's one out of every six students tested. 63 sixth graders with the very highest PTSD symptoms, including 15 at Aptos Middle School, now are in the next part of the study.

Half of them are getting traditional counseling at school and refererrals for private therapy. The other half gets something new: ten weeks of specialized group therapy with social workers already at the seven participating schools.

Rubinstein Stine said she was surprised by how many youngsters are severely traumatized by fear of deportation or the stress of living in poverty.

"[It's] a fear thermometer. It's actually a tool for them to understand their feelings," said Rubinstein-Stine.
The purpose of the four-year study is to determine whether the specialized group therapy actually improves academic achievement.

"It's a good investment because we want to learn what is affecting students. We want to learn how to help them," said SRI Co-Principal Researcher Carl Sumi.

Money well spent to prevent dropouts and underachievers. Young adults who had been exposed to similar stress applauded the program.

"I think it should start in elementary school and keep teaching it,"  said Nunley.
"A person can only take so much. It just like, 'I'm not alone,'" said Barr.

While there may not be a way to stop the violence, the researchers and therapists can teach the youngsters how to cope with it.

Watch a video clip of this story here:

SPECIAL REPORT: Study shows some inner-city students suffering...