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Part 1: Coping with students who can’t cope with school

Lakeside School uses brain science to reach students affected by trauma.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Ever since middle school, it had been building up to this for Ray Willey.

“Knucklehead stuff, talking out loud, attention-seeking,” he says. “… I was in the office every day, having it out with the principal. … I couldn’t get through one period.”

This time, sent once again to the office at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in Plymouth Meeting, he cracked. Screaming, jumping around — “It was like a fire scene. … They called the cops.”

And, finally, running out of the building.

“I was just trying to get away. … I was running across the street, trying to dodge traffic, I cut through the golf course. … I felt like there was someone chasing me.”


Lakeside School, where Ray Willey would eventually wind up, sits on a bucolic, 40-acre Montgomery County campus in Horsham Township, a suburb of Philadelphia.

Since its founding in 1976, Lakeside — like other alternative programs — has dealt with the hardest cases, the kids who couldn’t cope with a regular school setting. And whose schools couldn’t cope with them.

The general term is “school maladjustment,” and it covers a wide range of issues, from truancy to sleeping in class to disruptive or oppositional behavior.


Lakeside School — one of four alternative schools in the Lakeside Educational Network — works with 35 school districts in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The school goes from 6th through 12th grade and has a capacity of 150 students. About 35 students graduate every year, but most return to their home districts for commencement. The average stay is about one year.

About 80 percent are classified as “special needs,” usually with emotional and health issues, not necessarily learning disabilities. The districts provide the funding.

When Lakeside started, most of its students were sent by the Montgomery County court system. But over the years, it has gradually shifted to working with individual districts, although it does have some court-adjudicated students. Monitoring ankle bracelets have long ceased to attract attention.

Brian Dager, Lakeside’s senior vice president, says that of four organizations providing day treatment centers in Montgomery County, only Lakeside has survived.

“They have very good counselors and case managers,” says Ellen Reilly, home and school visitor for the Colonial School District, where Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School is located.

“They show they care about these kids,” Reilly says. “… Sometimes that’s all the kids need. … Our counselors might have 400-500 kids.”

Dager says that sometimes getting a student out of a regular public school has built-in advantages: “Our students are from very different backgrounds … but the one thing they have in common is that they weren’t successful in public school. That creates a little bit of a bonding.”

Although it may seem on the surface that no single technique is unique to Lakeside, the key is combining four main components, which most standard public schools can’t do in the same way:

  • Small classes.

  • Intensive counseling.

  • Low staff turnover.

  • Trauma-focused education.

The latter is particularly important, says Josh MacNeill, director of the school’s NeuroLogic Initiative.

The genesis of MacNeill’s rather exotic job title is rooted in his experiences in teaching high school English classes years ago.

“I found out early on that I was doing a pretty good job. … I was reaching a lot of my students, getting accolades, but there were always a couple of students who seemed to be slipping between the cracks.

“Maybe their behaviors escalated to the point they were being sent out of the classroom. I was getting frustrated. Part of me wanted to blame myself. Maybe I just wasn’t a good enough teacher and needed to keep growing.

“But there’s a part of you, too, that always wants to blame the students. And I didn’t like the idea of blaming students. I don’t think there’s anyone who enjoys failure. I don’t think there’s a student who wakes up and says, ‘I want to disappoint my teacher. I want to get kicked out of class.’”

Then he attended a training class where Kathy Van Horn, Lakeside’s executive vice president, introduced the idea of trauma-informed education.

Van Horn explained how different parts of the brain affect students’ ability to learn. If a student is operating in the lower regions of the brain, where the fight-or-flight response is triggered, they won’t be able to absorb new knowledge.

Earlier life experiences and the current situation both affect students’ brains and their behavior in the classroom.

”That was kind of the ‘lightbulb experience’ for me,” MacNeill says.

“I learned that I wasn’t a dreadful teacher and it wasn’t that my students hated learning, but that I needed to prepare my students’ brains to learn.”

(For further detail on the science behind trauma-informed education, click here)

So MacNeill introduced different furniture, “fidgets” — small objects that can be fiddled with to relieve tension — and “brain breaks” for the whole class. The results were dramatic. In the first year, he says, the number of times he had to send a student out of the classroom went down by 60 percent. In the following years, it was reduced by 90 percent. “It’s very hard to teach a student Shakespeare when they’re wondering where their next meal is coming from,” he said. “They might be wondering whether a person who’s locked up is going to be released soon. They may be wondering why someone they texted didn’t respond.

“When I can get their brain energy focused on something that’s fun and easy, I can transition into what I’m trying to get across in the class.

“Some of our students have gone through traumatic life experiences. … Many of them have seen a lot of violence in their homes.”

MacNeill recalled one incident in which a student had been kicked out of another class, was sent to the behavior manager’s office, and was tearing the place up, screaming, throwing desks and chairs, and shattering a wooden workstation.

MacNeill was called in to help because he had a good relationship with the student. But as soon as he saw what was happening, he realized that just ordering him to calm down would be useless.

“If I attempted to do that,” he said, “the next chair was coming my way.”

So he got two tall cups of water and offered them to the youth. “Hey, buddy, you look thirsty. Take small sips.”

Exhausted from his tantrum, the youth accepted the water.

“It might look like I was preparing him for his next round of furniture-throwing,” MacNeill said, “but my real goal was actually just to hydrate him. When you drink the water, the process slows down your breathing. I was slowly regulating the bottom regions of his brain.”

MacNeill started picking up the pieces of the workstation and asked the student to join him, which he did.

“I was trying to get him to use his large muscles. That regulates the brain. I could see him calming down. The muscles on his face were loosening up. I talked with him. … We joked around.”

A year ago, MacNeill left the classroom to train other teachers, at Lakeside and at schools throughout the region.

“It’s still new, it’s still up and coming,” he says. “But I believe we’re on the cutting edge of finding a model for working with the kind of kid that the typical school doesn’t educate very well.”


This three-part series is made possible by funding from the Van Ameringen Foundation and the Reentry Project.