The Rise of Urban Public Boarding Schools

They’re designed to provide extra attention to students who suffer from trauma. But are they worth all the extra taxpayer dollars?

Monument Academy founder and CEO Emily Bloomfield (far right, black sweater) plays Foursquare with students in the school yard.  (Courtesy of Monument Academy)

WASHINGTON—The founding Monument Academy teachers and staff knew that running a 24-hour school for children who’ve survived trauma and violence would be difficult.

They just didn’t know how difficult.

“It was chaotic,” said Emily Bloomfield, the school’s founder and CEO, recalling the first few weeks of class last summer. “There was a lot of fighting ... a lot of cursing, a lot of running around.”

The 40 fifth-graders who started in August at this unusual new charter school in northeast Washington include children in foster care or at risk of entering the foster-care system. Some live in homeless shelters. Some have seen or experienced domestic violence or abuse. Some have grieved painful losses. And some have changed schools or been suspended or expelled so many times that they’re significantly behind their peers, both academically and emotionally.

That means students as old as 12 are reading at a kindergarten or first-grade level or exhibiting behaviors like thumb-sucking that are typically seen in much younger children.

When the students moved into their new “home,” their fragile emotions collided, staffers said.

“They fed off each other,” Bloomfield recalled. “There were a couple of kids who were really in crisis and when you have a child in crisis, and by that I mean, really, totally unregulated, melting down, behaving very dangerously, it’s a trigger for many other kids and their anxiety level goes up and their behavior goes up.”

Furniture went flying. Fights broke out. Police were called and ambulances were summoned to take kids to psychiatric hospitals. One child who had been accustomed to roaming the streets alone at night brought a fake gun to school for protection. And some staffers started to wonder if they would find a way to make it work.

But Monument’s founders had designed a secondary school that will eventually educate fifth- through 12th-graders using every tool they could find that’s been proven to work for kids who’ve experienced trauma. They scheduled yoga and meditation classes in the daily curriculum. They hired as many therapists as teachers—four of each—to take on the serious mental health issues that went largely neglected in students’ previous schools. And, most significantly, they took advantage of an unusual quirk in Washington, D.C.’s education law that offers extra funding to schools that provide housing to their students.

That makes this school extremely unusual in American education: It’s a free, urban public boarding school for kids who need extra attention.

* * *

Urban public boarding schools themselves are not new.

The SEED School in Washington opened in 1998 to give kids from struggling neighborhoods access to the kind of rigorous college prep boarding schools that were once available only to the nation’s wealthiest families.

SEED has generated controversy for its expensive model. It spends about three times more per pupil than a typical Washington charter school. The school has also been criticized for a high attrition rate since last year’s graduating class of 29 was much smaller than the 80 students who won the lottery seven years earlier to enter the rigorous “no excuses” sixth-through-12th-grade program. Students transferred to other schools for a variety of reasons, the school said.

But SEED has clearly gotten results. A 2012 study by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer compared students who were admitted to the school through its annual lottery to those who applied but didn’t get in. The study found that admitted kids not only had significantly higher math and reading scores, they also seemed to have better life prospects—a 3.8 percent increase in future earnings for every year spent at SEED, 1 to 1.3 percent decrease in the probability that the child will commit a crime, and a 4.4 percent decrease in the likelihood of the child developing a health disability.

“Urban boarding schools are expensive,” the study concludes, but the “implied benefits are enormous.”

Fryer cautions, however, that the school’s oldest students are still too young to draw conclusions about whether SEED’s impact will affect students’ lives into adulthood. “Whether or not the total benefits of attending SEED outweigh the costs can be known with the passage of time,” he wrote.

SEED has been featured on “60 Minutes,” visited by President Obama, and celebrated in the movie Waiting for Superman. It opened a second campus in Baltimore for students from across Maryland in 2008.

Now, the newest urban public boarding schools—including Monument and the latest SEED campus in Miami—seem to be taking the model a step further, using the round-the-clock structure to serve even needier children.

Monument is specifically gearing its curriculum to children in foster care and those who are trauma survivors while SEED-Miami is required by Florida law to set aside a third of its seats for children who’ve received services from the child-welfare system. Students can’t even apply to SEED-Miami unless they fall into one of five categories of children who have traditionally struggled to graduate. That includes foster youth, children with incarcerated parents, and kids whose families receive public housing assistance.

Eric Adler, one of SEED’s founders, said the unusual admissions criteria were spelled out in the Florida law that established the Miami school, but he stressed that students in Miami are not significantly different from those in Washington or Baltimore.

SEED has always served kids facing serious challenges—as should any school with such a high price tag, Adler said. “What would be the point of lavishing these resources in [wealthy] upper northwest Washington?” he asked. “We are aiming to deploy these resources on kids for whom we believe they will make the most difference.”

Bloomfield said she was inspired to create the Monument Academy after trying to help some relatives who had taken custody of two grandchildren with learning and emotional challenges. The relatives weren’t sure they could care for the children but when Bloomfield started looking into what might happen to them if they entered the foster system, she found alarming statistics: Roughly half of foster youth don’t graduate from high school, only 20 percent enroll in college, and just 2 to 4 percent earn a college degree by age 26. Foster youth are also statistically more likely than their peers to end up homeless, pregnant, or in jail.

Though Bloomfield served on a school board in California and was on Washington D.C.’s public charter-school board, she had never considered starting her own school, she said. Her background is in economics and public administration but the more she learned about what helps foster youth beat those overwhelming odds—things like a stable, quality education and the presence of caring, consistent adults—the more she wanted to build a school that would serve the needs of these neediest kids.

* * *

Experts on treating children with emotional issues will be watching closely to see if a public boarding-school model is something that could work in other districts to help foster youth, homeless kids, and other trauma survivors.

Some experts, like Susan Cole, the director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, will be watching very skeptically. “I know it’s well meant but it does raise concern that we may be harkening back to the old days when ‘troubled kids’ were sent to special homes or schools and excluded from mainstream classrooms,” said Cole, whose organization advocates for children who’ve endured difficult circumstances.

Some studies have shown that as many as two-thirds of American children in a random sample group experienced at least one traumatic event by age 16, and 13 percent experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Cole worries that if schools like Monument and SEED-Miami proliferate, it might give typical schools an excuse to neglect students who’ve endured personal challenges.

“It could be great when done well but it could also send a message to some schools that says: ‘You don’t have to have supports and services for students in foster care or homeless students. You can send them away,’” Cole said.  “That would be very troubling.”

But Bloomfield and her crew say typical schools are stretched too thin to give kids like their students the help they need. “I don’t think it’s because they don’t care. I’ve worked in those schools, too,” said Monument’s principal, Marlene Magrino. “It’s that they don’t have the resources. They weren’t built and structured around providing resources for that particular student or multiple students who are in that space.”

In many districts across the country, kids with difficult home lives act out in school and are treated as discipline problems. They’re suspended, expelled, or banished to a special-education classroom where they won’t disrupt mainstream kids.

“Many children who end up getting into disciplinary problems ... are kids who have a significant history of adverse childhood experience and resulting trauma,” said Christopher Blodgett, whose CLEAR Trauma Center at Washington State University works with schools to help them respond more sensitively to children recovering from trauma.

In some cases, when behavior becomes extreme, communities set up residential treatment programs where children are assigned by the criminal-justice or social-service systems. San Diego County in California opened what it calls the nation’s first residential education campus for foster youth in 2001. The San Pasqual Academy is part school and part foster-care group home.

But Monument is not a treatment facility or group home. No one is assigned to the school or placed there by social workers. Kids live with their parents or guardians on the weekend and at school the rest of the week.

Bloomfield recruited this year’s applicants by spreading the word to social-service agencies, homeless shelters, and organizations that work with high-risk kids and, as is required of all Washington charter schools, used a lottery for admissions.

Then, she applied TLC.

“At any school that I’ve worked in except for this one, my students have been the bad kids or the stupid kids, and that’s kind of how the whole school community views them,” said Julia Ellis, Monument’s special-education teacher. “That is not happening here ... These are the students that need the most love, and I think this is the place that gives them the most love.”

In designing Monument, Magrino and Bloomfield said they’ve been careful to avoid the pitfalls of some of history’s failed special-education schools—the ones that isolated so-called “troubled kids.”

Magrino cited studies that suggest that putting kids with emotional issues in segregated schools or classrooms can create problems. The students tend to clash with each other and lack the positive role models they would find in mainstream classrooms.

“Putting all these kids in the same school or in the same class without appropriate skill building or supports is absolutely a bad idea because there’s nobody modeling what you should be doing and nobody filling in gaps in skills,” Magrino said. “The difference here is we have a well-being team that’s the same size as our teaching team and every kid’s getting therapy. We have positive action every day where they’re being taught explicitly social and emotional skills. We have them living here to stabilize some of what goes on in the evening and we have exceptional, really small classes ... We’ve built the school on research around what helps kids become independent and successful.”

A few months after opening, the school still is struggling with behavior issues.

Recently in a science and math class, two teachers spent the first 30 minutes trying to settle the class as one girl wrote on her arm, another pulled her desk down into her lap, a third shoved construction paper cards she’d made for her boyfriend under the door into the hallway, and a fourth stood on a sofa doing a dance move that resembled twerking.

The teachers refused to start class until every student—they were all girls since the school is experimenting with separating sexes in most classrooms to reduce conflicts—had written an apology to me (a reporter) and an administrator who were watching the class.

One student apologized “for acting like im a animal,” spelling that last word “anmial,” and decorating the note with a picture of a dog. (Apology letters are a common form of discipline at the school since they help focus kids on the fact that others are affected by their behavior.)

But despite tough mornings like that, staffers say they see progress.

When one boy cussed out Magrino, the principal, later that day and ran to the door during a house meeting, she called this an improvement. A few weeks earlier that boy would have knocked over furniture and left the room, she said. This time, he stood at the door, simmering, until he was able to control his rage and come back to the group.

“That was a win,” Magrino said later.

* * *

At Monument, students live together in brightly painted apartments from Sunday night until Friday evening.

The additional time provided by the 24-hour model lets the school push some activities—like health class—into student homes at night so there’s more time during the day for academics and therapeutic interventions. Some students also receive therapy or counseling during evening hours.

The boarding model also provides more consistency and stability, making it worth the extra costs, Bloomfield said. Her school received a $400,000 startup grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges, she added, which supports school innovation, and $250,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, a grant that will help hire additional staff now to prepare for the school’s expansion to sixth grade next year, then seventh the year after.

The school is also raising funds to help cover the cost of reconfiguring the former Washington public school into a campus with classrooms on one side, apartments on the other, and a recreation area on the roof.

Going forward, Bloomfield says she expects to spend roughly $48,000 per student per year. That’s about three times more than typical Washington charter schools, but her school gets more money from the district because 55 percent of its students receive special-education services.

The expense is why schools like Monument and SEED aren’t likely to expand quickly across the country. Efforts by educators and advocates in Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and other cities to create public boarding schools haven’t moved much beyond the idea stage.

Advocates in Ohio went so far as to get state laws changed to open a SEED campus in Cincinnati or Cleveland but funding and politics have so far failed to come together.

Still, Adler says he continues to hope that schools like his—which supporters say save money in the long run since graduates become taxpayers instead of criminals or welfare recipients—will someday open in every city in the country. “It works and it changes lives,” he said.

At Monument, students learn to cook and set the table in apartments called “houses,” where bunk beds are separated from the living room by a series of sliding doors. Students have long lists of chores—scrubbing toilets, making beds, mopping up—and gather as a family for breakfast, saying a blessing before digging into their oatmeal and tea. At dinner, the students in one of Monument’s four houses write what they’re thankful for on colorful strips of paper and put them in a jar. Students are graded on how they behave at home as well as in the classroom but they have fun too, they say.

“Last night we watched a movie, ate popcorn, and we was over with our stuffed animals playing games,” one 11-year-old girl told me during a visit to the school in November.

That girl, who the school asked not to identify by name, lives in the Monument house supervised by houseparents Paul and Joy Langmaid. The Langmaids’ house includes 10 girls, the couple’s own infant daughter, and a friendly golden retriever named Midas. The girls vie for the daily “No Drama Queen” award that gives them the right to hold Midas’ leash when the house heads to the other side of the school each morning to exercise in the gym before class. The “No Drama Queen” winner also gets to select music for the house’s morning dance party, and anyone who wins three days in a row will get a pedicure and foot massage from Joy Langmaid. The award goes to the girl who best distinguishes herself in class and at home—one of many ways the living and learning environments are intertwined here.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth in the kids. The beds are relatively made. They’re waking up on time,” said Paul Langmaid, 33, who, with his wife, previously worked as a houseparent at the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania.

The wealthy Hershey School, a free private boarding school for low-income students, is one of the schools Bloomfield visited as she prepared to open Monument—but it’s hard to apply the lessons of a private school with a $9 billion endowment to a public urban start-up. Houseparents here don’t have the extensive support system they have in Hershey, Paul Langmaid said, but Monument is starting to show some results. “You can go through school now and there’s kids not running all over in the hall,” Langmaid said.

The Hershey school has been supportive of Monument. The storied academy even sent two of its longtime employees, Karen and Allen Brown, to work at Monument for a year while on Hershey’s payroll. The couple, both 59, are pitching in however they can, from filling in as houseparents to preparing food and fixing doors. “I was very shocked by the violence and outbursts we saw in the beginning,” Karen Brown said. “But it’s gotten much better as the kids have gotten consistency and gotten used to it.”

The school has a long way to go before it provides the kind of stable education that a well-resourced school like Hershey does, but if Bloomfield and her crew can figure out a way to help their students on a public school budget, they might be on to something, Allen Brown said.

In seven years, the Browns say they hope to come back and proudly watch this year’s fifth-graders accept their diplomas and get ready to move on to college or careers. The school plans to add a grade every year until this year’s inaugural class reaches graduation.

“Sometimes I look at these kids and I hear some of their stories and I feel like Emily Bloomfield is kind of Santa Claus,” Allen Brown said. “She’s landed on the island of misfit toys to help them. It’s a very challenging task to bring these kids up to that place where they need to be ... but there are dedicated people, doing hard work.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.