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When Home Is Tough, Making Students Feel Good At School

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Principal Jessica Nauiokas (left) with social worker Gabriella Cassandra at Haven Academy in the Bronx, N.Y.

In a classroom in the Bronx borough of New York City on a recent school day, a little boy in a green shirt got very frustrated. He was sitting on the floor with his fellow second-graders as they were going over a math problem with their teacher, when he suddenly turned away from the group and stamped his feet. It seemed like he was mad that she had called on another student. But instead of reprimanding him, the teacher asked him to chime in.

"You agree?" she asked him. "Do you want to take a look at it?"

The boy said yes and continued taking part in the lesson.

Like a lot of his classmates at Mott Haven Academy Charter school, this 7-year-old boy is in foster care. Two-thirds of the school's 330 or so elementary students are in the child welfare system, meaning they're in foster care or getting preventive services to keep them at home.

These are kids who have witnessed domestic violence or experienced abuse. Principal Jessica Nauiokas says her teachers know the cases and receive training in trauma to watch for any signs of behavioral or psychological problems.

"We try to respond in a way that keeps the kids engaged and keeps them in the classroom," she explains. "Where in other schools, if a student got up and walked away from the circle, pouted or stamped their feet and kind of acted defiant, those teachers might escalate that" and send the child to the principal's office or to detention.

A New School For Underserved Kids

There are roughly 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. Because they move around so much and lead such unstable lives, these kids are the very definition of students at risk. Studies have found they have lower test scores and graduation rates.

Haven Academy's approach is shaped by its partnership with The New York Foundling, one of the country's oldest agencies for children and families. CEO Bill Baccaglini said he wanted to build a new school for the type of kids served by his agency, because their academic outcomes are so bleak.

"Kids in the system, so to speak, usually by grade eight or nine are three grade levels behind their general community counterparts," he explains.

The entire setting at Haven Academy is geared toward making kids feel safe enough to learn. The schools is housed in a bright and colorful new building, every classroom has two teachers, and classes never have more than 26 students. Art, music or dance is offered every day. There are two social workers — a behavioral specialist and an outreach worker.

Social worker Gabriella Cassandra teaches a weekly class on social and emotional skills. She says it's about "how to focus, how to recognize how they're feeling, what to do when they're having what we call 'big feelings,' how to calm down, how to self-regulate."

Cassandra works with the teachers and students. She said she also spends an hour or more each day at the beginning of the school year dealing with the city's various social service agencies.

In some ways, Haven Academy is a more intensive version of what's called a community school. Upstairs from the school, in the offices of New York Foundling, there's a clinic for students and the neighborhood that provides physical and mental health services. The agency can host meetings there with biological and foster families so the kids don't have to travel.

The cost per student is slightly less than the citywide average at $18,000, according to New York Foundling. Baccaglini says that the charter is able to provide more services by limiting its overhead, and that it doesn't have unionized teachers.

Stability For The Homeless

The school is used to working with homeless students, too. This year about 20 percent of its kids are either doubled up with other families or living in a shelter. Child homelessness is rising in New York City — and around the country.

A recent study found that approximately 8 percent of city public school students are homeless, but only about 5 percent of charter students are. Experts believe it's harder for such students to get into charter schools because the lotteries for entry and application processes are more onerous for families in crisis. But Haven Academy is already in contact with the agencies that serve these children.

One fifth-grader living in a shelter, whose family doesn't want us using her name, says she was worried about telling other kids about her situation. But she says she loves coming to Haven Academy.

"When I come to school, I'm always ready to learn — and learn new things," she says. "I feel free when I'm at school."

Feeling good at school seems to have also contributed to good academics. Despite the stress these kids are going through, they've been scoring higher than the citywide average on their state math and reading tests.

Nauiokas, who helped launch the school, attributes that to high-quality teaching — but she also credits her partner, New York Foundling.

"I think opportunities to help develop a young person's character and develop a young person's coping skills and perseverance abilities, and their habits of mind — that to me is the responsibility of a school environment," she says.

This fall Nauiokas will get to share her experience with the U.S. education secretary and his team: She is one of four principal ambassadors to the Department of Education, and she wants to help schools throughout the country learn more about working with at-risk children.

Copyright 2015 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit

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