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Principal Jessica Nauiokas with fourth-graders at Haven Academy.

Principal Jessica Nauiokas with fourth-graders at Haven Academy.

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

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

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.”