‘Scholars’ find haven in Mott Haven

Foster children thrive at Haven Academy

When the “scholars” of Mott Haven Academy returned to school after a recent week-long midwinter break, they weren’t frowning or complaining about their lost freedom. Judging by the energy with which they attacked the 78 steps to the third floor of the PS 43 building, they had actually missed being in school.

The student body, clad in collared shirts of varying primary colors, was a kaleidoscope that shifted and reformed. Excited to be back, the scholars broke the ranks of orderly conduct to hug any teacher in sight.

On this special occasion, the break in routine was overlooked. But rules and structure are an integral part of the Haven Academy curriculum. The two-year-old charter school was designed with the needs of children in foster care and other protective services in mind and its mission is to provide stability to children who have lost it.

Haven Academy looks forward to new digs

By Nicholas Loomis

With two other schools in the PS 43 building at the corner of 136th Street and Brown Place, sharing is an important lesson that the kindergartners, first graders and second graders who attend Haven Academy are learning.

Though sharing space works for now, the school is absorbing a new kindergarten class and adding a grade each year, and it’s approaching critical mass.

That’s why the Haven staff and New York Foundling hope to open the school’s new $32-million building across the street from PS 43 in time for the 2010-2011 school year.

The seven-story building will accommodate 175 scholars in grades K-3 next year, and have space for the additional 250 scholars enrolling over the next five years to fulfill the K-8 charter. It will also be home to the New York Foundling’s Bronx-based community service operations.

“That building across the street is what we at The Foundling and at Haven Academy view as the vehicle to achieve the goal that we started out to pursue a couple of years ago,” said New York Foundling Executive Director Bill Baccaglini.

At a mid-March tour of the new building, Baccaglini showed off its environmentally-friendly features and noted that the materials used to build it will be free of dangerous chemicals.

The school is slated for completion on July 30. But the real target is August 30 – the first day of classes.

“On that day, this building becomes a school,” said Baccaglini. “So we have to be ready.”

“It’s not by accident that ‘haven’ is in our title,” said Jessica Nauiokas, the school’s founding principal. “We want this school to be a safe place.”

Nauiokas is a specialist in urban education. She was approached by the New York Foundling, the childcare agency that conceived the school, in 2007 to write the charter, and her own dream-job description.

“My goal is educational equity in public school, regardless of zip code, family structure, or background,” she said. “The kids we’re working with need advocates and champions on their side.”

Second grader Kyasia, 7, has responded well to the extra support since she became part of the first class at Haven Academy last year. She and her three sisters left home three years ago to live in foster care.

“When they got here, they weren’t talking, not eating,” said Deidra, the foster mother who enrolled Kyasia and her sister Wyasia, 6, in Haven Academy. “But now they’re doing a great job of all that.”

In her pink Haven Academy shirt and braided hair tipped in colorful beads, Kyasia was particularly happy to be back to the regimen of school that Monday.

“I love school because they always tell us what to do and I like how they do it ’cause, if we don’t know what to do and we just go off and do it, then that’s not how it is when we grow up.”

Along with a stable home environment and weekend visits to their birth family, Deidra credits a level of commitment at Haven Academy she didn’t see at Kyasia’s former public school.

“Everything is really good,” she said. “The teachers, the principal. Everything that I ask for I get, and I have no problem with that.”

In fact, she just completed an application for the girls’ younger sister to attend Haven Academy and hopes that Myasia will show up in kindergarten next year.

Like other charter schools, Haven Academy selects applicants through a lottery system. Unlike other charter schools, it has two lotteries: one to fill two-thirds of its seats with kids in the child welfare system, and one to fill the remainder with general applicants.

“There have been criticisms of charter schools in the press about creaming,” said New York Foundling Executive Director Bill Baccaglini of the perception that charter schools select only the most desirable students. “This is reverse creaming. We’re educating the kids the system hasn’t been able to educate.”

Baccaglini said that Haven Academy has already shown great strides because of its integrated model of education. In addition to teachers, the school also employs a staff of counselors and behavioral specialists who work with scholars, parents and teachers to ensure the children are developing healthy behaviors.

“The social and emotional development of the children is just as important as the academic,” said student specialist Tynisha Wynder. “The two really go hand in hand.”

In the interest of social and emotional health, and fun, a “community meeting” was held on the day after break to help students get readjusted to the routine of school. The meeting included a performance by each grade about what they were learning in class, a skit by the teachers, and, before going back to class, a group recitation of the school’s anthem.

“I’m smart and I’m strong. I’m ready for whatever comes along. I’ve got good friends. We’ll stick together ‘til the end. I’m able to do whatever I put my mind to. I like myself, I’m worth a lot. I like myself, I’m worth a lot. I like myself, I’m worth a lot. Don’t say I’m not, ‘cause you can’t see inside of me.”

If they were a little too excited filing out of the meeting, the teachers overlooked it.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Mott Haven Herald

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