fostering hope

Can keeping students longer help them thrive? A charter school explains why it’s adding grades

PHOTO: Haven Academy
Principal Jessica Nauiokas with fourth-graders at Haven Academy.

When the New York Foundling, a 140-year-old child welfare agency, set out to open a charter elementary school in 2008, its success was far from guaranteed. The school was targeting a notoriously hard-to-serve population — children in foster care or receiving family support services from the city. The students who didn’t fall into those categories would be pulled from the surrounding Bronx neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest.

The results were surprising. The percentage of students passing standardized math and English tests at Mott Haven Academy Charter School, known as Haven Academy, surpassed citywide averages in 2016. It has a 94 percent attendance rate and earns high marks from parents and teachers.

Now Haven is set to grow: Starting this fall, it will add a middle school grade for each of the next three years. The idea, explained the Foundling’s president and CEO Bill Baccaglini, grew out of wanting to keep existing students in a stable environment for as long as possible.

“Given all the progress we made with these kids and knowing the kind of educational environment they need to thrive, we thought it was unfair at that particular time in their lives — pre-adolescence — to let them go,” he said.

Jessica Nauiokas, Haven’s founding principal, echoed that sentiment. “I think those adolescent years are tricky for everyone, but they’re particularly tricky for kids who have been victims of trauma or abuse or neglect,” she said.

Research has shown that children in foster care are more likely than their peers to switch schools frequently, harming their academic progress. And a local study found that students in K-8 schools tend to outperform those who leave elementary for middle school.

Haven Academy

The longer Haven students stay, Nauiokas said, the more prepared they will be for high school and beyond. “Some of them need to be very self-reliant and very independent,” she said. “And it’s much easier to get a 14-year-old ready than it is to get them ready at age 11.”

Meanwhile, Nauiokas said, expanding Haven Academy will add more high-quality middle school seats in a district that could use them. The middle school will share a campus with the elementary school, but have its own director: Briony Carr-Clemente, who previously co-founded a Harlem middle school.

In many ways, Haven Academy epitomizes the “community schools” model the city has embraced, most notably in its Renewal program, as a way to better serve families and improve struggling schools. Students at Haven have access to mental health counseling, medical and dental care, and basic resources like coats, food and shelter.

Baccaglini is confident the expansion will pay off. “I always felt that if we could get these kids through eighth grade, all the habits that we taught them, all the values, the idea that they could be whoever they want to be,” he said. “If we could keep them pre-K-8, we’d have a great chance of that staying whole.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”