Barbara Ackermann was born and grew up in Bern, Switzerland. For the first 13 years of her career, she was a successful print media journalist. During a sabbatical in 1985, she came to California for the first time. She met several Licensed Clinical Social Workers, and wanted to join them on their career path. She gave up life as she had known it, and moved to Los Angeles in 1986. Like so many immigrants from all over the world, she had to start anew and earned her Green Card as a live-in housekeeper. With the skills she subsequently acquired as a student in Alcohol and Drug Counseling Skills/Counseling at UCLA Extension, she put herself through college. She obtained an AA degree in Spanish from Los Angeles Valley College (1994); a BA degree in Sociology (with a minor in Anthropology) from California State University Northridge (1996); and a Masters in Social Work from the University of Southern California (1998). She specialized in working with adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses.
While working with this particular population, she often wished that she could get into a time machine with her clients, and go back to their youth with them to rectify what went wrong. In 2002, she was given the opportunity to work as a school-based therapist with middle school students. She found her time machine, and she never looked back.
In 2003 she became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), and also earned her Pupil Personnel Services Credential at California State University, Long Beach. In 2004, she became the sole School Social Worker at Granada Hills Charter High School, the largest Charter School in the Nation. Although she enjoys all facets of her work, students with emotional and behavioral impairments (known as “emotionally disturbed” in the US K-12 vernacular) are her favorite clients. Her experience with one student – a Korean-American young man who is known as Taek in her dissertation – ignited her desire to study the journeys of teenagers who had to leave their comprehensive high schools because of severe emotional and behavioral impairments.
Young people with emotional and behavioral impairments—known as “emotionally disturbed” (“ED”) in the United States public K-12 educational system—are generally not allowed a voice on their own behalf. Instead, they become “the focus of ‘assessment,’ ‘management,’ and ‘intervention’” (White, 2000, p. 16). Because they are young, and because they have problems, their experiences, knowledge, and opinions are discounted by the adult “experts” in education and mental health. This narrative inquiry turns this power relationship on its head. It gives voice to five former high school students with emotional and behavioral impairments. They reflected upon their time in comprehensive high school. They retraced the sequence of events that culminated in their transfer to non-public school. They explored whether and how the alternative school placement supported their academic success and personal development. And finally—standing firmly in a place of personal knowledge and expertise—they explained to educators and mental health professionals how they might help other young people more effectively.
Key words: Emotional disturbance; emotional and behavioral disorders; K-12 education; special education; non-public schools; alternative educational placements; student perspectives; narrative inquiry