Each weekday, students at a Bronx elementary school pass a rainbow-colored mural dotted with flowers and butterflies on the way to the front office. Outside their classrooms, every teacher they pass offers a quick hug or a high-five. And there’s music. On a school day earlier this year, trumpets and flutes blasted Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.”
Mott Haven Academy Charter School is believed to be the first school in the country created specifically for children in foster care, and likely one of the few in existence. Its foundational goals can be found inside and outside the classroom, where the children’s emotional needs are as important as their academics.
Not all of the school’s 500 students from preschool through eighth grade are in foster care. Some are living in the city’s homeless shelters, others come from the surrounding low-income neighborhood.
“Teachers will always be in communication with you every step of the way of their journey, what is happening with them good and bad,” said Karina Linares, a mother of three kids who’ve attended the school who works there as a manager of events and facilities.
In a recent report outlining its success, the Bronx school’s educational model is described as unique.
“Over the years, schools from across the city and country have reached out to learn from us because they are interested in what we have built — and because they don’t see other examples like Haven Academy,” school leaders wrote.
From the outset, founders of the school — backed by The New York Foundling, one of the city’s oldest child welfare agencies — asked themselves a question, the report states. “If we built a school specifically designed to address the trauma that students had faced in the child welfare system and in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty, what kind of outcomes would we see?”
Jessica Nauiokas, Mott Haven’s founder and current executive director, described the school’s distinct approach — staff who fully consider students’ frequent disruptions at home, and how that might impact their learning. At school, students spend as much time on social and emotional development as they do on subjects like science or math, Nauiokas said, “because they are not separate, they really go hand-in-hand.”
This is where the school often referred to simply as “Haven” differs from traditional schools.
At its 2008 inception, “we came together to build a place that does acknowledge, recognize and understand that experience,” Nauiokas said. “We’re going to be helping children be better prepared to navigate life as a student and beyond.”
The school’s results
How Haven students perform in high school and through adulthood is not yet fully documented. But according to the recent report produced by The New York Foundling, its students outperformed foster youth attending other New York public schools on math and English tests, most notably in the younger grades. They also exceeded peers at other schools on measures including school attendance, special education referrals and suspensions — despite the often-precarious nature of their home lives.
The differences between Haven Academy and traditional schools include some fundamentals: Two teachers per classroom, so that when a child is experiencing difficulty or needs special attention, the rest of the class can continue with minimal disruption; a strong school “culture” whereby all employees — whether a P.E. teacher or the top administrator — know the child’s individual needs and challenges and the plan to best serve them; relatively stable staffing and leadership; and access to social workers. Support beyond campus includes mental health care and family workshops.
During a January visit, kindergarten teacher Yahaira Perozo taught her class about the phases of plant and flower growth. Her students immediately shouted their answers in unison, before Perozo told them to “raise your hands” and “levanta tus manos” for the English-language learners.
Meanwhile, in the back of the classroom, a second teacher took a student aside. He had come to school that day feeling down and frustrated. She gave him the space to draw his emotions on paper.
Foster youth disparities in school
Research has shown that foster children tend to be ill-served by schools in New York City and beyond — academic outcomes described in Haven Academy’s recent progress report as “heartbreaking,” “bleak” and “historically dismal.”
The nonprofit Advocates for Children released a report in January that found significant disparities between the roughly 7,500 students in foster care and those living at home in New York City. The study found students in the child welfare system experiencing higher rates of suspension, absenteeism and school instability, and lower math and test scores and graduation rates than their peers.
Those findings, tracking data from 2016 to 2021, follow a mayor’s office study released last year that found only one in four New York City public school students who spent time in foster care graduated on time in 2019.
Haven Academy’s demographics have changed over its 14 years, with a decreasing number of children in out-of-home foster care. But school officials point to some rare positive statistics in this otherwise often-bleak field.
The pandemic hit hard at Haven, as it did at nearly all schools. Recent school-wide test scores have dipped, particularly in math, which is also a national trend. But the school has shown historic gains over time that are noteworthy.
According to Advocates for Children, more than one in five New York City students in foster care repeats a grade, compared to 6% of all students. At Haven Academy, since 2016, no more than 5% of students with child welfare involvement have repeated grades.
The school also stands out when it comes to educational disability plans. Citywide, 47% of foster youth have an individualized education plan. The percentage is roughly half that for Haven Academy students with a similar background.
This is seen as a success because children in foster care are often referred to special education programs “because of blurry lines between behavioral issues and learning disabilities,” according to Haven Academy officials. “Haven staff,” in contrast, “have been much more successful at differentiating between those needs and providing short term interventions first before looking to more intensive services.”
What’s more, prior to the pandemic, Haven’s child welfare-involved population had an average 92% daily attendance rate, compared to the 88% citywide rate. Far fewer of these students were chronically absent or likely to be suspended when compared to peers at other city schools.
Still, its challenges are substantial, as measured by another set of numbers.
Haven Academy students, who come from mostly Latino and Black neighborhoods, face double the rates of homelessness as students at other schools in the area.
The Haven Academy kids
When The New York Foundling donated $18 million to create the school on Brown Place, the goal was to serve children in the child welfare system — those whose families remain intact but are receiving services to avoid foster care removals, as well as children who have been removed from their parents. The other target group was children from the surrounding neighborhood, one of the city’s most impoverished.
The school’s original concept was to serve an even split among these three groups. But that has changed over time, particularly the number of children who are living in foster care. In the 2021-22 school year, just over 5% of the student body, or 26 students, had an active foster care case, a number that reflects a gradual reduction over the years as the city has turned away from family separation and toward supporting parents’ needs to avoid removal. The trend reflects efforts nationwide that have resulted in dramatic reductions in the foster care population.
Still, whether a student had a sibling in foster care, or their family is intact but subject to social worker oversight, a good many still “carry the trauma of their experience whether or not their case is active,” the recent New York Foundling report notes.
And with shorter stints in foster care more likely, a student may leave a parent’s home and return within a school term. So even defining who is “in foster care” is no longer a simple metric.
A study led by University of Michigan social work researcher Joseph Ryan published in 2018 found that children who had been investigated by Child Protective Services scored “significantly lower” on math and reading exams, and were more likely to be held back at least one grade and need special education services.
Given the population the school serves, “we know that attendance is always going to be an issue,” Nauiokas said. “We know that perhaps behaviors may be masking other issues.”
So at Haven Academy, students’ behavioral challenges are expected, and addressed through individualized plans that involve numerous school staff. Some plans include a “cozy corner” in a classroom, while others include extra breaks during the day.
The school’s guiding principles are posted on every floor in brightly colored lettering. “H” for honesty, “A” for achievement, “V” for value community, “E” for empathy and “N” for never give up.
The Haven Academy teachers
The Foundling report notes that “many public schools are ignorant or indifferent to the specific experiences of children in the child welfare system. This is not out of malice — for most schools, this is a topic that staff are not trained on and have little exposure to.”
Training may amount to a few minutes each year devoted to foster care or mandated reporting. In contrast, “Haven staff are explicitly taught about the child welfare system,” the authors note.
That means carefully reacting to how students handle things like transitions to new activities. If a student drops his head or kicks his feet against a table, in most classrooms a teacher would step away from the rest of the class to address the student and manage the disturbance, upending the progress of the entire group.
In a typical second-grade classroom at Haven Academy, a teacher might provide special attention to the student having the outburst, but with the speed of a text message, an out-of-classroom support person could come to assist.
All school staff play a role in students’ social and emotional wellness, including administrators and the technology team. If a child has a special relationship with a physical education teacher, that person might step in during a crisis moment, rather than the classroom teacher.
Jardy Santana, who has worked at the school for a dozen years, underscored how every teacher is hands-on, whether or not they are assigned to a particular child’s classroom.
“The main office, out-of-classroom staff, in-classroom staff, regardless of the student — if there’s a certain behavior plan that’s in place, everyone knows,” she said.
For example, if a child wanders in the hallway, all of the school’s teachers know not to approach or admonish the student, because it’s a part of their plan to have some free movement.
If students are particularly sad on a given day, extra efforts are made to uplift them. Playing music, extra Lego time or an early recess could all be part of the school day.
“That is a constant goal that we have each year, being memory-makers and supporting students by having a different view of what school is supposed to be,” Santana said.
A comprehensive social history is conducted with new students to determine which adults might be most supportive. Responses are tailored to understanding how a child who had just experienced a traumatic CPS removal involving police could be triggered by sirens or alarms. In such an instance, staff could provide extra support during fire drills.
When students threaten to harm themselves, at many schools that would prompt an immediate call to 911. At Haven, trained staff would first conduct an assessment, weigh the risk, and then determine the necessary next step.
“This can help avoid retraumatizing a child unnecessarily,” school officials state in their January progress report.
In addition to two teachers in each classroom, a staff of 20 is assigned to care for students’ social and emotional needs. Training to work at the school involves a focus on everything from attachment theory to the impact of trauma on young children.
“We make our classrooms feel like a community of learning, and a culture of ‘we care about each other’,” said Ashley Baffour, a third-grade teacher. “We’ve seen tremendous growth from kids, I think that goes a lot to the training that we’ve been given.”
Teachers also provide vulnerable families with one-on-one support, incorporating parents into children’s learning plans. In some instances, they text a parent every morning to make sure a child gets to school on time.
“We meet with families to figure out the barrier,” said Lauren Katzenstein, a family and student specialist at the school. “We ask parents what they feel like they can contribute, and what can we contribute to really make it a partnership.”
Staff also hold weekly meetings to share updates on students and to discuss their circumstances and ability to participate in school.
Linares’ son, a second grader, learns better with pictures, she said. So his teacher uses figures and drawings to meet his learning goals, individualized attention that gives her a feeling of a safety net for him at school.
“I know my kids are being cared for,” she said. “I know that they’re getting the maximum education that they can get, because everybody that’s working with them makes sure they get whatever it is that they need.”
There’s another difference between Haven Academy and other schools: the level of social work support.
A team of four full-time social workers, two social work supervisors, a middle school guidance counselor, eight social work interns and five behavior specialists provide weekly lessons, individual and group counseling and crisis intervention. One behavior and data specialist focuses on restorative justice.
Social workers visit classrooms weekly to discuss building friendships, conflict resolution and how to celebrate the students’ racial, cultural and ethnic identities. Teachers then have the responsibility to “carry the torch” to reinforce the practices, said Vivian Colon, director of student services.
“It’s giving the child the language to tell me in fifth grade: ‘I am feeling very disappointed and frustrated right now and I need a minute,’” Colon said. “If we have the expressive language that creates emotional intelligence for our kids, it’s worth the investment.”
A model for others?
Haven Academy officials and the leadership at the Foundling acknowledge there are limitations to their data findings and understanding the school’s long-term impact. Child advocates have expressed concerns about creating a special school for kids in foster care, fearing it could further stigmatize the children. Another concern has been that having a school serve this unique group of students would let mainstream schools off the hook from serving them.
But Haven Academy’s educators maintain they have hit on key approaches that work, and have created a model that could be incorporated beyond the Bronx neighborhood the school serves.
Principal Nauiokas said her goal for all of her students is to offer “the highest quality educational experience that moves them to the highest level of academic skills as quickly as possible.”
But just as important is how they feel along the way, she said, and how they develop socially. “The second thing I measure is during the time that kids are with us, do they have trusting relationships?”