“Children can be helped regardless of their circumstances.”—Dr. Pamela Cantor
NEW YORK–On a flight to Florida for a vacation with her parents in 1964, a curious and sensitive 16-year-old teenager named Pamela found herself seated next to a woman, who turned out to be a psychiatrist, reading the same book she had just started: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger. They spent most of the flight happily engrossed in a deep conversation, and that chance encounter ignited a passion for psychiatry that deepened into a lifetime of commitment for Pamela. She grew up to become Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and president of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization working with public schools to address the teaching and learning challenges associated with children living in poverty.
Born in 1948 in New York City, Pamela initially thought she’d be an artist, studying at the arts-focused Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, but the tug of psychiatry—coupled with her ongoing friendship with the woman she’d met on the plane—helped her change her path. “I knew that I would enjoy arts all my life,” she says, “but going to medical school and studying psychiatry would truly empower me to serve those in need.”
This was a bit of a shock to her parents, as “this was in the 1960s, and there was a strong stigma attached to psychiatry and counseling,” Pam says with a grin. It was also a bit of a shock to her brain, as she’d never taken a single college-level mathematics course. Undaunted, she signed up for courses in algebra and chemistry, then eventually applied to the general studies program at Columbia University in New York City when she was in her mid-twenties. “It was a very demanding pre-med program that failed sixty-five percent of students,” she says. Fortunately, she wasn’t one of them, and in 1978, when she was 29; she was accepted to Cornell University Medical School. “That was a time when not too many women studied medicine, and Cornell was one of the schools that accepted atypical students,” she adds.
While at medical school, Pam focused on psychiatry and working with children; her fellowship dealt with the effects of trauma; and her residency program exposed her to the local community. “It was during this training that I first understood the meaning of a disadvantaged upbringing,” she says. Once she was in private practice, the more she treated children exposed to violence and trauma, the more she realized that these children had difficulty trusting, concentrating, with impulse control, and with making smart choices. “Helping them adapt and surmount their challenges gradually became the central focus for my professional life,” she says. “The right help, important connections that strengthen belief and resilience can mean that children will surmount challenges regardless of their circumstances.”
Another important influence in Pamela’s life was an accidental meeting with George Soros, the renowned philanthropist and human-rights advocate. “I was sitting next to him at a dinner, and we talked a lot about the impact of trauma on children. He wanted to create an education system in Eastern Europe that meant that younger generations could become citizens in new democracies,” she recalls. She was soon invited to become a consultant for the Open Society Institute, which supports efforts to increase access to quality education and mental health care in countries which were no longer Communist or dictator-run.
In 1994, Pamela began working in Budapest, Hungary and other East European countries to address the traumatic impact of years of Communism and war on children, and to help build the social and emotional knowledge and practice to address the impact of trauma especially on children’s functioning in school there. “In many countries I visited, social work and psychology practice was illegal. Among others, we had to train teachers, pediatricians, and nurse practitioners about the emotional and social development of a child,” she explains. Among others, we had to train teachers, pediatricians, and nurse practitioners about the role of trauma in the emotional and social development of children,” she explains.
In 1999, following the Columbine High School tragedy, a colleague introduced Pamela to then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, and she joined the “Children Exposed to Violence Initiative” launched by the Justice Department in the 1990s to educate people about what violence does to children. She then worked with the New York City Department of Education to assess the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the city’s public schools, particularly those in high-poverty neighborhoods. Collaborating with the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, Pamela led the nation’s largest urban epidemiological study assessing the effects of poverty, violence, and trauma on children in the public school system. “The statistics were alarming,” she says. “One in five children met the criteria for a full blown psychological disorder. Sixty-eight percent of kids were exposed to trauma sufficient to impair their functioning in school. And the most significant symptomatology of 9/11 was not around Ground Zero but in the schools in the highest poverty areas in New York City.”
Appalled by what these children were enduring, Pamela founded Turnaround for Children in 2002 in New York City to provide interventions in at-risk schools, using a team of three: a social-work consultant, an instructional coach, and a program director. The trio works closely with school administrators, teachers, and mental-health professionals in the community. These interventions are designed to address the challenge of inadequate student support systems, ineffective teaching practices, and a school culture characterized by persistent disruptions and low expectations.
Helping teachers and staff implement better classroom management for children who’ve been traumatized is one of the key components of Turnaround for Children. A “fortified environment” is built to provide extra care, attention, and positive reinforcement the kids particularly need. “Even though the teachers want to create a highly engaged learning environment, they don’t know how,” Pamela says. “High poverty schools have a perfect storm of challenges—readiness challenges in students, large learning gaps and a staff that doesn’t feel prepared to address this set of challenges. Kids with serious learning challenges, issues around impulse control, and a disruptive mindset show up in classrooms in large groups. The school itself will have about four hundred such students. The teachers were never trained to handle such students in large groups.”
Turnaround for Children is such a success that they have partnered with 84 schools to date (18 this school year) in New York City, Washington D.C. and Newark, New Jersey. And a host of celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Donna Karan, John Legend, Steffi Graf, and others have shown their support for Pamela’s work, helping to promote and fund-raise for this most worthy of causes.
Pamela is now 65, but still indefatigable. When not seeing her 5 children, 15 grandchildren, and extended family of public school children—“I collect the people who have influenced me in my life like someone walking on the beach collecting sea-shells, but I keep them with me for life,” she says. Her philosophy is as steadfast as ever: “Dreams can come true if children have people in their lives who never give up on them.”
Video courtesy of Turnaround for Children, Inc.
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Turnaround for Children strives to transform public education so that high-poverty schools across America are designed to confront the predictable and recurring challenges of poverty as they manifest inside schools. Turnaround has designed a targeted intervention to mitigate the impact of traumatic stress on child development. In each partner school, Turnaround creates a student support system, trains teachers in proven classroom management and instructional strategies, and works with school leaders to build a high-performing culture. This allows every child to develop the social, emotional, and academic skills to succeed in school and in life.