Jim Sporleder retired in 2014 as Principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA. Under Jim’s leadership, Lincoln High School became a “Trauma Informed” school, gaining national attention due to a dramatic drop in out of school suspensions, increased graduation rates and the number of students going on to post-secondary education. These dramatic changes at Lincoln caught the attention of Jamie Redford, who spent a year filming the documentary, Paper Tigers, which tells the Lincoln story. The documentary was released at the May 2015. His travels have taken him all over the United States. Jim is married, has three daughters and six granddaughters.
Tell me about a time when you were in the trenches and managed to crawl out: Jim asked to be transferred from the middle school dream principal job he had and was about to retire. He had read a report on alternative programs in the district and realized he should get over there to help the kids. His wife mentioned “why don’t you go?”. He realized he needed to transfer. Asked superintendent to transfer him. Started at Lincoln in 2007, it was mostly out of control, h didn’t understand how out of control it was there until he got there. There were gang fights, it was very unsafe, and a spark turned into forest fire. Was trying to gain control, create a safe environment. It was difficult getting to be accepted by the kids. He wondered if he’d made the right decision. He was in a trench for 4-5 months. Then kids started to accept him. He was very student-oriented throughout career. He had a saying “cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em”; is embarrassed to say it now. It took 3 years till he felt safe enough to go to the conference (that he could leave the building for a day or 2) and was introduced to ACES and it totally transformed him. John Medina was the keynote speaker. It hit him with a lightning bolt (this was in 2010). ⅔ of his career was traditional discipline. The transformation happened immediately. Even though some people say it takes 3-5 years. He had hired the staff, told them things would be done differently. He’d never heard of toxic stress. They were relationship-oriented. He saw a momentum, it make a huge difference in staff. The phrase is “what’s happened” rather than “what’s wrong you?” It wasn’t a hard sell to get staff to make the change. It took only first kids he saw and changed approach with so it happened quickly. The kids started telling their stories. There were 850 out of school suspensions the year before trauma informed practices were implemented. Dropped to 325 because they were still dealing with gang activity. Grades went up, discipline went down. Referrals the last year were only 125. Kids responded & contributed. In reflection, kids transformed staff with their stories.
How did the story about Lincoln HS get out, to the point that Jamie Redford wanted to do a documentary about it? Jim tracked the data and matched it with data as Trauma Informed School. Terry Barilla community champion let Jane Stevens, she flew up to Walla Walla and wrote an article, it went viral, was read in 32 different countries. It took off a 2nd year. Jamie had been deciding to do a film on trauma & ACES, Jane told him to contact Jim & see Lincoln. Dr. Faletti, co-founder of ACES study told Jamie to come to Walla Walla. Jim watched Jamie intently, Jamie watched them at Lincoln intently. Before the day was out, Jamie won him over. He passed away on Oct. 2020, Jim wanted to acknowledge him and how he kept track of the kids much longer than the film took to complete. Film was going to be a segment of a larger film. Jamie said “Lincoln’s a goldmine, we’re deciding to make it a stand-alone film”.
How much more do you think that TiPs were used more consistently in schools after Paper Tigers (2015) came out? TiP is now sweeping Europe. We have a “wave” building across the country, every year it gains more momentum. More and more principals, superintendents are standing up and saying “this is the approach we’re using”. We’re getting glimpses of state officials where officials are taking active roles as well.
Why do you think it took the release of your documentary to have educators really think about this? Because it exposed the lives of the 5 kids. It’s not a Lincoln story, it’s a lens to the students at any school. That’s the power of the film, driving force. Certainly it affirms people because they are of the TiP mindset. Paper Tigers (PT) created the national dialogue. Now on the international market. You can watch PT and have emotional connection and be stirred, it doesn’t mean the culture will move in the right direction. Until one understands the “power of one” and make it who they are there’s no consistency. In ‘15 TiP wasn’t the norm. It’s the champions who are taking the risk. Those who do are experiencing the positive connections with kids.
What do you say to schools where the principal is on board with TiP, but the staff isn’t and vice-versa? He says if the leader isn’t leading it, it’s not going to be sustainable. You need to change the culture, create a family unit. In his early outings as a consultant, he observed principals getting the staff together and then taking off. The principal has to be the voice out front. Schools that have embraced this approach are all experiencing the positive data. Staff want to stay in their position when they see positive change. Still champion’s effort moving in this direction. We haven’t reached a point where this is a common approach in schools. Jim hopes to see the day TiP are used world-wide.
What kind of consulting work has kept you busy during the pandemic and what do you foresee as needed in the future due to a substantial projected increase in ACES? He has done full/partial day virtual trainings with schools. There was a launch with 50 youth workers from Sudan & Nigeria who are training to be trauma coaches for their communities. 60% of kids pre-COVID had experienced violence, during COVID there has been an 110% increase in student fights, domestic violence, and a huge decrease in child abuse cases. We need to re-evaluate how to communicate with our kids. The protection of kids is going down during the pandemic.
Do you still have contact with many of the students in PT? Do you have a story about a particular student you’d like to share? He was in much more communication with them when they were younger. Diana is the one he keeps in touch with the most. When she got out of HS she had a difficult time. She would loose her job and would keep getting up. She’s a crew supervisor now, has had 3 promotions, still has 0 support from her family. Jim’s youngest daughter became a foster parent out of this experience. Cool case worker who graduated from Lincoln, this was Cheyenne. Other students were at his house helping him with his website, tech. They even showed up to breakfast with him with ties on, they are starting a consulting business so Jim is a guinea pig. These boys were in background of the movie. One of them said “you’re my father figure”.
Key quotes? Because we have a wave going, we still have misconceptions about what TIP is “the power of one”, if I truly understand this, I have the opportunity to help change a life path. When we understand the power of one, it becomes who we are rather than what we do. All conversations are driven by the “power of one”. The more positive adults are, more positive interactions are created . He wants to make sure he shows appreciation for people he interacts with daily. Sunshine brought into a person’s day.