SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The first responsibility of a school has always been to teach. But some schools face the added challenge of children who are dealing with homelessness, life in foster care or trauma. WNYC reporter Beth Fertig takes us to a school in the South Bronx that has a new approach to educating at-risk children.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How many more to 10?
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: The second-graders were sitting on the floor during their math class when one boy in a green shirt suddenly got frustrated. He turned away from the group and stamped his feet. But instead of reprimanding him, the teacher called on him to solve a math problem.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You agree? Do you want to take a look at it and see if Crystal's right?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Yup.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Take a look. Let's see if it's really...
SIMON: This 7-year-old boy is in foster care, just like a lot of his classmates here at Haven Academy Charter School. Two-thirds of these 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.
JESSICA NAUIOKAS: And we try to respond in a way that keeps the kids engaged and keeps them in the classroom, where in other schools, if a student got up and walked away from the circle or stamped their feet, those teachers might escalate that. And before you know it, students are missing time in class.
FERTIG: Haven Academy's approach is shaped by its partnership with the New York Foundling. It's one of the country's oldest agencies for children and families, and it opened the school in 2008 because kids in the child welfare system have pretty bleak academic outcomes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You can share your seat when you ride the bus. Raise your hands if you ride the bus.
FERTIG: Haven Academy is a bright and colorful new building. Every classroom has two teachers. Art, music or dance are offered every day. There are two social workers, a behavioral specialist and an outreach worker for about 330 children. Social worker Gabriella Cassandra teaches a weekly class on social and emotional skills.
GABRIELLA CASSANDRA: How to focus, how to recognize how they're feeling, what to do when they're having what we call big feelings, how to self-regulate, do individual work with the kids. I do a lot of work with the teachers.
FERTIG: And with the various social service agencies. There's a clinic upstairs from the school in the offices of the New York Foundling for students and for the neighborhood. The school is also used to working with homeless students. This year, about 20 percent of its kids are either doubled up with other families or living in a shelter.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: And I get nervous at other people because they might, like, laugh at me.
FERTIG: This fifth-grader is living in a shelter, and her family doesn't want us to reveal her name. The 11-year-old says she loves coming to Haven Academy.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: When I come to school, I'm always ready to learn and learn new things. And, like, I feel free when I'm at school.
FERTIG: 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. Principal Nauiokas attributes that to high-quality teaching. But she also credits her partner, New York Foundling.
NAUIOKAS: 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.
FERTIG: This fall, she will get to share her experience with the U.S. education secretary and his team. She's one of four principal ambassadors to the Department of Education, and she wants to help schools throughout the country learn more about working with children at risk. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.
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