NYC Charter School Provides Safety Net For Foster Kids

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NEW YORK— A Harvard-trained administrator thought she had heard it all as a gatekeeper in a city office responsible for supporting charter schools when Bill Baccaglini walked enthusiastically through the door with one more idea.

“I thought, ‘Here we go, another big idea,'” recalled Jessica Nauiokas. But she found herself liking his plans so much that she offered to be the Bronx school’s principal. “I walked out of the meeting and said, ‘Wow. That actually is a compelling idea.'”

Thus explains how Nauiokas became principal at the Haven Academy Charter School, where a third of students are in foster care. Another third are in families receiving preventive services to diminish the need for foster care. The rest are from the Mott Haven community, which is in a Congressional district where a soaring poverty rate keeps a third of residents on public assistance.

Many schools cater to disadvantaged children, but Haven Academy is unique because it houses hundreds of counselors in the same building. It was impossible to find a blueprint for the school, Baccaglini said.

“We searched and searched and searched but we couldn’t find models,” he said. It’s such a novel project, he added, that it might be a few years before it can be fully evaluated with an eye toward replicating it.

“Schools aren’t organized in a way to accommodate how chaotic their (students’) lives are outside of the four walls of school,” he said.

The counselors work in the Bronx Community Services offices of the school’s sponsor, the New York Foundling, a 142-year-old citywide private child welfare agency. Baccaglini is the agency’s executive director.

The school features a small student-teacher ratio, an extended school day, many tutor options and special training to keep teachers consistent in the language they use and their responses to problems, Nauiokas said.

The school opened in 2008 with 90 students in kindergarten and first grade. Last year, the student population swelled to 175 as grade three was added and a newly renovated $32.5 million building was opened. Private donations are sought for two-thirds of the costs. The rest was publicly financed.

Next school year, 40 to 50 new students will arrive as the fourth grade is added.

The charter school hopes to close the achievement gap between students from stable backgrounds and children from troubled families, said Baccaglini, who worked in state government before joining the Foundling in 2003.

“Even though their world outside of school is falling apart, we want to keep their educational experience as consistent as possible,” he said.

The school was one of 124 charter schools in the city this year, said James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center. He said many schools work with social services agencies but he knows of none that cater to those in the foster care system and partner so closely with an agency.

“That’s what makes it such an interesting model,” he said.

It’s a comfortable environment for children, said 9-year-old Arthur Dash, who’s entering the fourth grade.

“They’re not going to keep pushing and pushing you. They’re going to lead right up to it,” he said. “If there’s a problem, there’s a solution too, Dash added, referring to the counselors.

The school’s staff played a pivotal role in identifying Arthur’s emotional outbursts as an emerging problem and suggesting where he could get treatment, said his mother, Nicole Zenon.

“In a public school, they would have just labeled him a disruptive child and let him go,” she said. Zenon said she has the cellphone numbers of almost all the school’s teachers and that sometimes the principal answers when she calls there.

No students have been kicked out for behavioral problems, Baccaglini said.

“These are kids in the child welfare system. We expect them to produce some behavior issues,” he said.

Haven Academy solves problems as they arise, said Perla Jimenez, a parent of two students. She cited the school’s relaxed reaction to a time when she could not clean school uniforms in time for class, the kind of issue that leads some parents to keep children home from school. “They would just allow me to take the kids to school in regular clothes,” she said.

Ingrid Bonds, a music teacher who came from Philadelphia where she had worked at a new charter school years ago, said she noticed differences right away.

“What I love about this administration are the tools they’ve given me as far as love and logic, to redirect certain behavior,” she said. “At my old charter school, yelling was accepted and I don’t want to yell.”

She said teachers at Haven are taught to speak to children as if they are little adults, offering positive and logical consequences to disruptive students rather than yelling or ordering them from the room.

The teachers are equipped with phones for emergencies, but Bonds said she’s only called for help a handful of times.

The school has three full-time employees who focus solely on the social and emotional needs of the students. On any day, five to 10 Foundling counselors may be enlisted for student visits lasting from 30 minutes to a full day. All 200 Foundling counselors are invited to school functions.

The school was formed mindful that the only way students will progress academically “is to address the social stuff,” said Gwendy Fuentes, who coordinates support services between the school staff and child welfare workers.

Fuentes said it is not uncommon for counselors to help children who have been removed from their parents or have moved, sometimes multiple times a year.

“They’re very sad. They cry. They act out. They don’t have anybody to talk to, so we make sure we provide that here,” she said.

Fuentes said boundaries are drawn so abundant social services remain a support rather than an enabler for children from high-stress environments.

At the school, the percentages of students performing at or above grade level in reading and writing and math has steadily risen, with 84 percent of second-graders last year performing at or above grade level in reading and writing.

Fuentes said she measures achievement by the level of enthusiasm children show toward classes.

“I want them to think learning is fun,” she said.

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