One School’s Mission To Teach Kids Whose Lives Have Been Hijacked By Trauma

A South Bronx school started by a child welfare agency has gradually found answers for educating youth in foster care.

Sasha Redlener slipped into a child-sized chair at a table beside first-grader Alyssa. It was midway through a class discussion on safety, with the students at Mott Haven Academy Charter School scratching out answers to questions like, “What does it mean to feel safe?” and “What can you do to help make your school feel safe?”

But Alyssa was sticking out her tongue and shimmying in her chair. Redlener asked the girl if she was comfortable at her table.

“I’m comfortable,” said Alyssa. “I just have a lot of energy.”

“I can see that,” said Redlener, suggesting they visit the water fountain for a quick break. As she escorted Alyssa into the hallway, Redlener’s co-teacher, Carolina Garcia, and Alexa Wernick, one of the school’s family and student specialists, scooted beside other students to coach them on their writing.

The goal with Alyssa, as with all her classmates, is to keep her “in the green.” At Haven, a decade-old South Bronx charter school serving roughly 450 kids in pre-K through seventh grade, moods are characterized by colors. Red and blue represent unpleasant moods: anger, frustration; sadness, boredom. Yellow stands for positive, high-energy emotions, such as excitement and joy. Green is tranquility, serenity, satisfaction — ideal conditions for what Haven teachers refer to as “learning mode.”

Alyssa has large, brown eyes; dark hair that’s often gathered in a ponytail; and a tendency to wiggle and squirm. (“Watch your body, Alyssa,” has been a common refrain from teachers.) At the start of the school year, she would often shut down, arms folded, eyes cast downward. But midway through the school year, she had learned to express herself more effectively, to recognize her pooling frustration and take steps to forestall it. She would speak up when she was feeling excited or upset and listen when teachers gave her feedback. Taking water breaks, drawing and coloring and interacting one-on-one with teachers also helped. Alyssa’s school weeks were still marked by ups and downs, however; she was particularly on edge if she missed a visit with her mother.

Since November 2015, Alyssa had lived in foster care, and her time with her mother had been restricted to twice-weekly visits, meted out one hour or so at a time, in the drab office of a child welfare organization and under the supervision of a caseworker.

At many schools, a home life like Alyssa’s would be an outlier — but here it’s written into the founding documents of the school. A third of the kids at Haven are in foster care, and another third come from families enrolled in the city’s preventive services (such as drug and mental health counseling), which are designed to stabilize households to keep kids from entering foster care. The final third live in the surrounding neighborhood. These students often have their own intense needs as their families contend with the stresses of poverty. The Mott Haven section of the Bronx, a mix of row houses, retail stores and hulking housing projects one subway stop from Manhattan, is located in the poorest congressional district in the country.

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