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Students hug while in class.
One Day Magazine

Fostering Independence, One Student at a Time

Many foster children are ill-served by traditional school structures, but Mott Haven Academy in the Bronx is helping those students beat the odds.

By Ting Yu

February 1, 2018

Family-style meals at Mott Haven Academy

Watch students and teachers gather for lunch, family-style, at Mott Haven Academy.

In recent years, Facebook has reconnected me with many of my former students. (“Is that really you, Ms. Yu?!” comes the friend request from the ether.) But I’ve often wondered about those who don’t resurface. One of my favorites, Alpha, was bright, unfailingly kind, and mischievous, though he had a sadness about him that made him seem older than his 12 years. Like many corps members, I had several kids who, like Alpha, were in foster care. He made progress in my class, but at times I felt a gulf that I just couldn’t bridge.

As I began reporting this story about children in foster care, I decided to look him up. The search result broke my heart. Alpha was arrested in 2013—the year emblazoned on my classroom banner, the year he was supposed to graduate from college.

There are 428,000 children currently in the U.S. foster care system. If present trends continue, only one in five will attend college, and between 2 and 9 percent of them will graduate. One 2016 study estimates that nearly half of foster youth are incarcerated within two years of aging out of the child welfare system.

Kids like Alpha are the most vulnerable of an already marginalized population.

Advocates say better data is the first step toward greater awareness and more effective policies. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama in 2015, is the first federal legislation to recognize foster children as a sub-group within schools. It requires state education systems to partner with child welfare agencies to ensure that students remain in a stable school setting when it’s in the child’s best interest. Beginning this year, state report cards will track performance data and high school graduation rates for students in foster care.

In this story and Part Two of this series meet two women who are fierce advocates for progress. Here, Jessica Nauiokas, a principal, shares what she has learned from a decade of cultivating a school to meet the academic and emotional needs of students in foster care. In Part Two, Luz Villar, a former foster youth, tells the story of her quest to graduate from college, and what it took to overcome the financial ruin and homelessness that capped her tumultuous childhood.

© Photo SASKIA KAHN Jessica Nauiokas, Head of School and Founder of Mott Haven Academy.

Teaching Against Trauma

Mott Haven Academy in the South Bronx, New York, serves students in the poorest urban congressional district in the United States. Two-thirds of Mott Haven’s 400 seats are reserved for students who are living in foster care or receiving prevention services. Twenty-seven percent of students are homeless. Despite these challenges, Mott Haven students outperformed their Bronx counterparts by an average of 30 percentage points on the 2016 state math assessment, and outperformed students citywide in both math and reading assessments. One Day asked co-founder and principal Jessica Nauiokas (D.C. Region ’97) what she has learned over the past decade of educating some of the most vulnerable students in the country.

Mott Haven Academy serves a unique population. How was the idea of your school conceived?

NauiokasThe New York Foundling [a nonprofit that serves foster youth and families in crisis] saw what was happening to children in foster care. Kids were being bounced from address to address, and each time they moved, they were enrolled in a new school. Before you knew it, well-intentioned teachers and school leaders were continuing that cycle of chaos for the child by moving them in and out of classrooms, misunderstanding their educational needs. We thought, what if we could design a school together that really understands the needs of kids in care? We also offer wraparound services for some of our students—a mental health clinic, dental clinic, and medical clinic.

Given the makeup of your student body, do you think differently about your role as educators?

We’ve given a lot of thought to how to make our environment trauma sensitive. I want to say, though, that while it’s true most of our kids are either in foster care or receiving prevention services, the remaining third of our students are from general South Bronx community families. To be honest, these families often struggle with many of the same challenges as our families in the prevention category.

A student high-fiving another student.

What should educators understand about students who are involved with the child welfare system?

That kids who have been victims of abuse and neglect have been wronged by the adults around them. They deserve an educational space where the adults don’t make mistakes with them again. That means you need schools with strong culture, teachers who have experience, and resources to support their needs. It’s fundamentally unfair for kids who start out already having chaos in their home lives to end up in schools that are ill-equipped to meet their needs.

Are there misperceptions about kids in foster care?

Kids who have experienced trauma can exhibit habits and behaviors that closely mirror those who need special education services. So foster care kids get over- and misidentified as having special needs or learning disabilities. This leads to having the wrong goals for kids and an inaccurate sense of their abilities. At Haven, we often find it’s just that they’ve had disruption to their learning, so we do everything we can to stabilize their experience. Educators need to know that these deficits can be bridged with the right interventions.

What kinds of challenges may be invisible to teachers working with kids in foster care?

Most students in this population struggle with some kind of attachment disorder, and it impacts their resilience and their ability to build trusting relationships with peer groups and adults in the school. It can present as behavior problems, being withdrawn or having a flat affect, and being disconnected from the school community. That insecurity takes a long time to overcome, but it can be reversed and kids really can have a learning stance and thrive in a general education environment as the child moves away from the point of trauma.

© Photo SASKIA KAHN At Mott Haven Academy, second graders switch up the way they greet each other and their teacher, Vyasa Tewari (N.Y. '08) at each day's morning meeting. On this Monday, dancing gets them pumped for the day.

Is it hard to address such deep emotional trauma in a school setting? 

We spend probably half our energy on academics and remediation of students and the other half on our social-emotional environment. Our social-emotional curriculum is a big part of school culture. It’s not a separate class—it’s routines and language that are woven throughout their day. For example, during morning meeting the kids have a chance to talk about themselves and share personal feelings through a “mood meter.” Then it’s on our teachers to figure out how to bring all students in and lead class activities knowing the emotional state of the kids.

That sounds pretty challenging. What kind of training do your teachers receive?

It begins with selection. We prioritize hiring folks who have been social workers or have social work experience because we find they work most effectively with families who are navigating child protective services. We tend to look for folks who have both general and special education dual certification. In terms of training, we try to find a balance between taking time to do academic work and setting expectations for how we want adults to interact with students. We do a lot with attachment theory and helping them understand kids who are in the child welfare system. We train our teachers in our social-emotional curriculum. For example, we practice positive discipline. Children who have experienced abuse or neglect don’t do well with demerits or taking away privileges. They need to be able to depend on things they earn and know they won’t get taken away.

Is there a core principle that guides your work?

Empathy. In everything we do.

How have you built a school culture where kids feel safe?

We’re intentional about every decision. Our kids eat breakfast, lunch, and two snacks with us, so we want to make sure that these are opportunities for community building. We offer family-style meals where our students sit at round tables with adults. There are community food bowls in the middle of the table, and they practice passing food, determining portion size, and saying, “May I please have some more?” and “Thank you.” We want mealtime to be a predictable part of their world and a ritual they can carry with them.

We look for texts that talk about real-life issues that our kids struggle with. So, stories that feature different family structures—maybe being raised by a single parent or by grandma. Stories that talk about divorce or what it might be like to live in a shelter or that have characters who visit someone who is incarcerated. You’ll see and hear teachers leading circles that give kids a chance to normalize those experiences. We bring together kids with similar experiences and make sure they understand we all have our own paths, and it’s what we do to overcome the obstacles that matters.

How does the experience of a foster child at Mott Haven look different from that at a more traditional school? 

I had a student who went into foster care when she was in kindergarten. The amount of abuse and neglect she sustained prior to going into foster care was pretty significant. She had been left home alone with no one but an older sibling to care for her, and I can’t even imagine the other types of things she endured. When she arrived at Haven Academy, she had the kinds of tantrums and outbursts that really stress teachers out—behaviors that disrupt the whole class, where you need help from outside the classroom to settle the child. After a year, we asked, is this the appropriate setting? Is it fair to the other kids? We decided to keep her with the same teacher who was willing to have her a second year and put a number of other supports in place. Fast forward through five years of remediation and skill building and she is on grade level performing as well as her peers, and with no special education services. She really has become a significant leader in our community. I think about her often because I know that if she had gone to any other school, her behaviors were intense and severe enough that it’s possible she would have been sent to a therapeutic program or a very specialized setting where they may have considered medicating her. We were able to provide an environment that was predictable and safe with consistent adults to really get her through that difficult time.

Mott Haven Academy has some special resources given the critical mass of foster children at your school. Are there things you do that typical traditional schools can replicate?

Absolutely. Any school can bring attachment theory into teacher training and do more to understand trauma and abuse. Most schools won’t have the volume of students we have in the system, but I guarantee you they have some subset of children who are living in shelters, or who may not be raised by biological caregivers, and may be dealing with traumatic events from the recent past.

What could a teacher do tomorrow to reach out to students who may be in foster care?

I’d say to any educator: Take the time to reflect on a typical school day and the experience a student has in your classroom. At what point during your school routine does this child have voice? And when does this child have choice? A lot of foster kids have no control over what happens in their lives. If they can have one part of their day where they get to be a decision-maker, it starts to build up their agency and self-confidence and resilience.

What Happens When a Child in Foster Care is enrolled in Haven Academy?

In leading a school designed to give foster youth the best possible chance at success, principal Jessica Nauiokas has found these actions to be essential.

  1. Upon arriving at Haven, the student immediately receives counseling related to past trauma and abuse. School staff members addresses aggression through mental health counseling and social-emotional learning time class discussions.
  2. Teachers, trained in attachment theory, build trust with the child.
  3. The child joins a community of students who understand what it’s like to be in the foster system, and who don’t feel they have to hide the details or fabricate stories about their home lives.
  4. Haven does outreach to the child welfare system to keep the student in the school even as she moves from home to home. The school’s social work team will continue to intervene with the child welfare system to recommend the best home placement for the student.
  5. The school supports the foster family through attendance coaching, family enrichment events and group counseling.