Princeton Area Community Foundation awards $275,000 to statewide principal and administrator group to help students exposed to trauma

The Princeton Area Community Foundation is giving $275,000 to a statewide organization for principals and administrators to fund a program to teach school staff members in Mercer County how to identify students exposed to stressful or traumatic experiences, and how to engage all students in a way that promotes healing from the mental health effects of the pandemic.

The Foundation for Educational Administration (FEA) is the nonprofit arm of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, a membership services organization dedicated to the promotion of educational excellence through supporting school leaders via government advocacy, legal assistance, leadership programs, professional learning, and retirement counseling. The FEA’s “Healing Centered Engagement” initiative will be funded with a $137,500 grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Fund. An additional $137,500 is being donated for the project by a foundation fundholder who wants to remain anonymous.

The program is on a statewide pilot program created by the Foundation for Education Administration earlier this year, and supported by grants from the Princeton Area Community Foundation, the Burke Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, New Jersey Health Initiatives, and the NJ Pandemic Relief Fund, along with assistance from the NJEA (the statewide teacher’s union), the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Education, and the Office of Resilience in the New Jersey Department of the Children and Families. Three Trenton schools and one school in Hamilton were part of the initial statewide cohort of 26 schools.

“We know that trauma can inhibit a child’s ability to learn, develop language skills, and create healthy attachments. The stress and isolation of the pandemic have contributed to worsening student mental health,” said Atiya Weiss, executive director of the Burke Foundation. “We are excited about this ground-breaking partnership to expand Healing Centered Schools in Mercer County in partnership with the Princeton Area Community Foundation. Supporting whole-school training on adverse childhood experiences, trauma-informed approaches, and mental health will offer new tools to our educators and staff to help our children heal and thrive.”

The grant will allow the FEA to expand its program to up to 25 additional schools in Mercer County. Priority will be given to schools with a significant number of economically disadvantaged students. 

“Every child returning to school has a COVID-19 story, and they have all experienced some level of trauma,” said Jeffrey Vega, president and CEO of the Princeton Area Community Foundation. “With this grant, the FEA will be able to train teachers and other school staff to recognize the signs of trauma and help create action plans to connect children and families to resources in the community.”

Children who experience traumatic events or stress sometimes act in ways that may seem disruptive, and as a result, may be disciplined by school staff. The FEA program helps school staff, including teachers, nurses, and counselors, learn how to recognize students who have experienced trauma and stress so they can respond to them with social-emotional support.

Each school receives general training, and select staff members undergo intensive instruction so they can teach a youth-mental health first aid curriculum. The schools also work with coaches to develop plans to help students and staff heal from the effects of the pandemic.

Another important component of the program is connecting schools with the community. In some cases, staff at schools refer families to other nonprofit agencies for assistance. The program requires each school to have at least two community nonprofit partners. The FEA has already trained more than 2,000 school staff and community members.