A Population of Grief – ED.gov Blog

By: Cori Walls, International Baccalaureate Film and Digital Video Production Teacher for Palm Beach County School District in Delray Beach, FL

Why do so many films tell the story of a child who loses a parent? Or that many superheroes justify the death of their parents? This is where art is reality for far too many children across our country. The challenge lies in how to offer support to these bereaved children.

Before Covid, statistics showed that in the United States, 1 in 15 children had a parent who died before the age of 18. Now, according to an October 2021 article from the National Institute of Health, “More than 140,000 American children have lost a primary or secondary caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic”, the latest figures show that ¼ of Covid deaths are a child who loses a parent.In an NPR article from October 2013, children who suffer from the death of a parent often follow one of two paths: rebellion, crime and self-harm or independence, courage and determination to succeed. The latter is what I want to see in my students and is part of the reason I have worked hard to help them.

My other motivation is three months into my mother’s pregnancy, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Eight months after my birth, he died at the age of 30. Growing up, I didn’t know of other classmates who were dealing with the death of a parent. Growing up without a father is the reality that they are gone forever, and you will never have a conversation with your parents again – a loss that few people truly understand.

After changing careers from television journalist to television and film production teacher, I learned during my first year of teaching that there were a handful of students whose parents had died, and each year after, I met more. However, three years ago I had 10 students on my list who had one or both parents deceased. That’s when I knew I had to do something. I convinced my then principal to allow me to start an after-school program to bring students together who were coping with the death of a parent or caregiver. Steve’s Club, created in my father’s name, is a private and safe space for students who have lost a parent, caregiver or sibling to meet and know they are not alone. To provide emotional and academic support, Steve’s Club partners with several organizations to provide grief and coping support, training for teachers and staff on how to support grieving students, the program ED’s TRIO helps students prepare for and apply for college, and local businesses have provided opportunities for students to gain professional and academic exposure.

However, Steve’s Club startup hit a huge hurdle. I had no systematic way of identifying the students who had suffered this loss. Every student I invite to Steve’s Club is referred by word of mouth by teachers, school counselors or the students themselves.

In the first year, Steve’s Club identified 34 students on campus who had a parent or caregiver who died. In 2020, when COVID-19 rocked our country, our communities and our schools, 67 students were identified and nearly half showed up for virtual meetings. This year, we’re back face-to-face with students, and three high schools in the Palm Beach County School District are home to Steve’s Club, which serves more than 100 students. Next year, more than 10 elementary, middle and high schools plan to offer Steve’s Club on their campuses. If we are to find beauty in death, it is because death does not discriminate. It affects students from all walks of life and through their grief they forge supportive relationships. Steve’s Club creates an environment for students to persevere and look forward to a prosperous future, while respecting their past and their loved one who will always be missed.

Cori Walls is an International Baccalaureate Film and Digital Video Production teacher for the Palm Beach County School District in Delray Beach, Florida. A teacher for 8 years and a former television journalist, Walls founded and sponsors “Steve’s Club”, an after-school group that supports students who have lost a parent, caregiver or sibling. For her work bringing attention to grieving students, Walls received the 2021 FEA Human & Civil Rights Award and is nominated for the 2022 NEA Martin Luther King Memorial Human & Civil Rights Award. Walls is an active member of the CTA’s Human and Civil Rights Committee and the FEA’s Racial Inequality Task Force.