Providing a trauma-informed education for hurting children
By Krista Simpson
Photos courtesy of Hope Academy
The Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter is a special organization in our area that aids children victimized by abuse. This fall, the shelter is introducing a new component that will allow it to further support and nurture area children. That component, Hope Academy, is designed to provide the extra attention and specialized education that children of abuse need to foster growth and learning.
“Hope Academy is the first trauma-informed public charter school in the state of Arkansas – and one of only a few in the nation,” NWA Children’s Shelter Grants and Marketing Manager Kate Lunsford said. “Our curriculum and programs are designed to meet the unique needs of children who have experienced significant childhood trauma that has led to difficulty succeeding in a typical classroom environment.”
With the academy being a new concept for the shelter, only students in kindergarten through third grade will be taught for the 2020-2021 school year. However, with every following school year, Hope Academy will add one more grade to the curriculum up to the sixth grade as the staff gains more experience and fine-tunes the programming.
The academy is being implemented this fall, but the NWACS is no stranger to trauma-informed education – there has been a school on site for more than 20 years. But it has only been available to residents of the shelter. Hope Academy will open up its doors to shelter residents and other area students in need of a trauma-informed education who are not affiliated with the shelter.
“With a charter school, we saw the opportunity to help children throughout Northwest Arkansas who have been affected by trauma. With the support of the local school districts, we set out to meet these needs,” Lunsford said. “Childhood trauma can include physical, sexual or emotional abuse; physical, emotional or educational neglect, abandonment, time in foster care, witness to domestic violence, experience living in a chronically chaotic environment in which housing and/or financial resources are not consistently available, or experience living with household dysfunction (mental illness, substance abuse, incarcerated relatives, absent parent).”
As for the format of the school days, Hope Academy will follow a typical school schedule. Everything that can be found within a regular school campus, such as a gym, playgrounds and music and art rooms, can be found at Hope Academy. Hope Academy is an extension of the shelter, but it is classified as a charter school. While the majority of the programming runs similar to any other school system, the academy is formed around the need to provide an education specifically for trauma-affected children.
“A big difference lies in the class sizes. To meet the academic needs of children who have experienced trauma, Hope Academy utilizes a 10-to-1, student-to-teacher ratio,” Lunsford said. “These small class sizes provide support and individualized attention each student needs to succeed. In addition, each classroom will also have two paraprofessionals providing additional opportunities for one-on-one attention for the students, as needed.”
If any of the children, during any point of the school day, find themselves overwhelmed or struggling with things such as behavior, paying attention or emotional distress, Hope Academy is able to provide them with more one-on-one consulting than a standard school would be able to provide. All teachers and paraprofessionals are specifically trained to engage with traumatized children, which sets the academy apart from any other school in Northwest Arkansas.
Hope Academy is made possible by grants from both the Whitaker Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The notion of the academy, however, is credited to Jake Gibbs, principal of Hope Academy. Gibbs was the driving force behind the creation of the academy. According to Lunsford, Gibbs saw the need for this specialized school.
“In many cases, responses to trauma may look a lot like disobedience, lack of motivation, ADD, ADHD or other types of learning disabilities. Childhood trauma actually affects the neural pathways in the brain,” Lunsford said.
After-effects of trauma often include much more impact on a child than the average person may assume. “Early childhood trauma is a risk factor for so many things – from adult depression to PTSD and most psychiatric disorders, as well as a host of medical problems, including cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke, cancer and obesity,” Lunsford said.
Visit hopeacademynwa.org for more information and to submit an application form for your child.