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School zeroes in on teaching traumatized youths

by Mary Jordan | January 31, 2021 at 3:45 a.m.

HIGHFILL -- Hope Academy of Northwest Arkansas works to live up to its name. It is the only school in Arkansas dedicated to teaching traumatized youths.

Hope Academy opened as a charter school Aug. 24 and serves about 40 students in kindergarten-through-third grade on the Northwest Arkansas Children's Shelter campus, said Jake Gibbs, school principal.

The school's mission is to provide traumatized children with a learning environment where they can be successful socially, emotionally and academically, he said.

"There are probably other schools out there that cater specifically to trauma, but we never found a matching program," Gibbs said.

The scope of trauma experienced by students varies, he said.

"We have kids who have experienced trauma of a physical nature. We have kids who have lost a father or mother through tragic circumstances," Gibbs said. "We have had kids who've been victims of neglect and who are now either being fostered or have been adopted and their new families are struggling because there's just a whole set of behaviors that manifest from trauma."

Leah Mendoza, 42, of Bentonville said Hope Academy is a game changer for her family.

"We want to keep our babies safe, and we want to make sure that anyone who interacts with them in their life has the same goal," Mendoza said.

Her children, Caleb Mendoza, 7, and Ava Mendoza, 9, attend Hope Academy, Mendoza said. Both children experienced trauma that led to them being placed in foster care for about a year in June 2019.

"I was an alcoholic," Mendoza said, adding that she says "was" because she doesn't believe in labels.

Caleb attended first grade at Jones Elementary School in Bentonville for about a week before transferring to Hope Academy, while Ava started at the charter school in August, she said. Ava, a third-grader, attended Reagan Elementary in Rogers before being placed in foster care.

Public schools weren't prepared to meet the needs of her children, she said.

"They don't know how to handle kids like this," she said.

Both children had a habit of leaving the classroom, Mendoza said. Ava was easily distracted and would wander the school grounds out of boredom, while Caleb would simply run away from class.

"He would just get up and take off," she said. "He wouldn't listen. He wouldn't do anything that was asked."

Debbie Jones, the Bentonville School District's superintendent, has been in the conversation for developing Hope Academy for the past four years and said traumatized students who don't succeed in a traditional classroom really need the school.

"I'm talking about children who are bouncing off the walls, who are climbing under tables, who are hitting, could be violent, screaming -- that sort of thing," she said. "Their needs are so intensive."

The children's shelter has the space, ability and resources to meet those students' needs, Jones said.

"It was a perfect match for them to work with families that have these severe needs," she said.

Northwest Arkansas Children's Shelter opened in 1998 and is a private, nonprofit organization that provides 24-hour emergency residential care to children who are victims of family violence, neglect and abuse.

Children attending Hope Academy from throughout Northwest Arkansas come and go from the school daily, rather than living at the shelter, Gibbs said.

Hope Academy is one of 24 open-enrollment charter schools in Arkansas, some of which operate multiple campuses. Open-enrollment charter schools are taxpayer-supported campuses operated by nonprofit organizations other than traditional public school districts. They are public schools open to all students and do not charge tuition.

Hope Academy, like other public schools, receives state funding based on its enrollment. The Walton Family Foundation provided a $325,000 startup grant for the school, said Kathryn Heller, Walton Family Foundation home region communications officer.

"Hope Academy offers a new model that strengthens education options for Northwest Arkansas families," said Kim Davis, senior adviser with the Walton Family Foundation. "The academy provides students a high quality learning environment with access to trauma-informed curriculum and training."

The school has a sensory room with tools such as a treadmill and a swing, which allow students to move around while doing purposeful activities so they can better cope with what they see, hear and feel in the classroom.

"We have some research-based practices we can use that kind of concentrate those movements and get the most out of those movements whether they need like deep pressure or they need to spin or whatever it is," Gibbs said. "They can get their brain moderated."

Play therapy is also integral to helping children communicate trauma, said Ellen Bennett, counselor.

"Play is the language that they use, and toys are their words, because they don't know the vocabulary to process the trauma they've been through," she said. "It's a process of going through and having them do the play therapy sessions and see their trauma, kind of have them play out, which is them processing it when they can't speak to it."

Ava and Caleb both have benefited from the school, Mendoza said, noting that she saw differences in her children's behavior within the first couple of weeks.

"My kid loves school now," she said of Ava.

Caleb is able to better control his behavior in the classroom but is still a kid at heart, she said.

"He wants to stab zombies all day, he doesn't want to be at school," Mendoza said. "He likes it when he's there, but he's just a little boy. He wants to be outside playing in the dirt and shooting bad guys."

Hope Academy experienced the same challenges as others opening during the pandemic when it came to ensuring cleanliness, wearing masks and employing social distancing measures, Gibbs said.

The challenge had less to do with safety measures than it did with ensuring administrators created a space that was the right environment for children with a lot of different needs, he said.

The bulk of the school's students attend class in-person, while about 10 attend virtually on school-provided Chromebooks, Gibbs said. Students use web-based software and Zoom sessions to interact with teachers and counselors.

"Our model is really highly dependent on that face-to-face relationship building," he said. "There's nothing to replace that in-person experience."4

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