ENTERPRISE – Changing schools is never easy, especially for foster children who often have relocated several times. The traumas they have encountered in life are compounded in traditional school settings, frequently resulting in slower academic progress and behavioral challenges. At the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home (FUMCH), the Legacy Scholars Academy provides at-risk student residents with a better chance for educational success.
"Children in foster care are often one or more grade levels behind their peers due to their circumstances and the time required out of the classroom for court appearances, social services, psychiatric or other appointments," said Elisabeth Gadd, FUMCH vice president of development. "These children often suffer from trauma as a result of their circumstances, which inherently makes it more difficult [for them] to learn."
Located in the gymnasium on the Children’s Home main campus, the school operated last year as the Aldersgate Day Academy, serving 26 at-risk students. Gadd reported that youngsters once viewed as problem students rose to become school leaders and improved their grade point averages. One student who started with a 0.5 GPA finished the year with a 3.5.
"Students who suffered from very low self-esteem became more confident in the classroom, in large part because the academy adopted the RULER social-emotional learning model created by Yale University," explained Gadd. "The model has scientifically proven that students learn better when they can recognize and regulate their emotions."
This year, the academy will serve 34 students ranging from elementary and middle school to high school. Classes typically average eight students with a teacher and a paraprofessional aide in every classroom. The low student-to-teacher ratio makes it easier for students to get one-on-one help and attention. In addition, volunteers help with projects and field trips and serve as mentors.
"These children need to feel loved," said Vicky Barnes of DeBary, who served as a classroom volunteer at Legacy Scholars Academy last year and is returning this year. "Self-esteem and love are the biggest emptinesses they have. When someone works with them one-on-one, the students see things in different ways and want to be in school."
Barnes, who worked at a Hollywood high school for 13 years as an assistant athletic director, was inspired to volunteer after she moved to the area and had a chance meeting with Children’s Home CEO Becky Dotson.
"Her passion was contagious, and we connected," Barnes said. "I knew it was meant to be for me to become a volunteer."
Indeed, Dotson was instrumental in bringing classes to the Children’s Home campus for resident students who previously attended Volusia County public schools.
In a prepared statement, Dotson said, “We recognized challenges on both the part of the Volusia County Schools and the children of FUMCH. We all know that these children have suffered significant trauma and their long-term ability to learn was suffering as a result. Our goal is to do everything in our power to help our children succeed in school because this impacts their overall success in life.”
This year, Legacy Scholars Academy will have 10 certified teachers who are paid by the Volusia County school district. The Children’s Home and program donors provide other operating expenses for the school, which has four classrooms. In addition to academic instruction, the school focuses on five key elements of emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The students also move through a rigorous grade-level assessment process that follows state standards.
"This was appealing to the school district because it took students that were disruptive or needed additional help out of their classrooms," Gadd said. "This model helps students recognize and regulate their emotions."
Not only did the school district have to agree to the idea of the academy but so did the students. Each child who chose to attend the Legacy Scholars Academy had to complete a written application and go through an oral interview.
If last year's higher grade point averages are any indication, the academy is getting students back on track toward graduation. Comments from students indicate the model is helping them love school again. Said an eighth grade student quoted on the Children’s Home Facebook page last year:
“When I walk through the doors and see everyone in the gym in the morning, I say to myself that 'I don't have friends here... I have family.' We are a team, a family — and family and teams stick together. It’s hard for me not to see myself in this school because it’s a part of me. Here I feel good about myself … staying out of trouble and doing so well in school.”
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.