Peek inside most kindergarten classrooms and chances are you will see a familiar scene. Stations for phonics, counting and make-believe. Educators gently directing learners from one activity to the next. And calm corners that help young students learn to take a breath and regulate big emotions.
At this age, play always has a purpose. But at Hope Academy, a trauma-centered public charter school in Bentonville, Arkansas, the classroom itself is a place of healing, with each element designed to keep children in the classroom and learning.
Serving K-5 students and their families from across Northwest Arkansas, Hope Academy provides a tailored educational experience for children who have endured heart-wrenching circumstances – from abandonment and exposure to drugs in utero to physical and sexual abuse.
The Walton Family Foundation is proud to support the pioneering work the school is doing to help ensure the most vulnerable children in Northwest Arkansas have access to a high-quality education.
In the classroom, trauma can manifest in unexpected ways, particularly if you aren’t trained to recognize the signs. Ninety percent of a child’s brain development happens before the age of five. Trauma can impact emotions, social skills and cognitive functioning. For a child experiencing trauma, the reassuring hand of a teacher on their shoulder might read as a loud, flashing danger sign.
“Trauma culminates in behaviors that typical classrooms are not well equipped to handle,” says Jake Gibbs, Hope Academy’s principal. “When your brain physically will not allow you to communicate in a safe way, it becomes a real challenge. Many of our kids come to us homebound or suspended, with a lot of academic catch-up to play. It’s like a perfect storm of disadvantages,” he says.
An innovative school model, Hope Academy is one of the only trauma-centered schools in the country.
Here, small classrooms of 10 students are staffed with one teacher and two paraprofessionals, each trained in evidence-based support models like Conscious Discipline and Trust-Based Relational Intervention. With a behavioral and academic plan in place for each child, students and their families also have access to family advocates, social workers, counselors and therapists, ensuring consistent treatment at home and school.
“Our priority is to keep our kids in the classroom and at school,” says Jake.
“If a student is getting dysregulated, our staff are trained to intervene before it becomes a disruption to learning. We want to get their bodies calm. We have safe spaces they can retreat to, and sensory tools they can use to help center themselves. Every adult they encounter at school is operating from the same playbook, and it creates a consistent set of expectations and experiences for every child.”
Hope Academy’s programming has also been restorative for parents and caregivers. “We heard a lot when we started that families were using up all their sick and vacation days picking up their dysregulated kid from school,” says Jake. “This can create bitterness between a parent and child. With us, they know that will be the absolute last resort. Knowing they can reliably go to work and that their child is safe and learning can be really healing for families.”
Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that children’s mental health is a national emergency. Arkansas ranks 48th among states with children experiencing two or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are indicators of childhood trauma that impact children’s mental and physical health and have long-term impacts on adult health and wellness.
Research tells us the that most powerful way to offset the impact of having a high ACE score is for the child to have at least one emotionally attuned adult in their life to help them metabolize the stress as they experience it rather than storing it. Hope Academy is prioritizing this and training its educators how to support children in this way.
“Traditional schools are doing the absolute best they can with the resources they have, but without greater knowledge, support and infrastructure, children with trauma are being left in an environment that doesn’t meet their needs and perpetuates the cycle,” says Rebekah Mitchell, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, with which the school is co-located.
Through Hope Academy, which launched in 2019, Rebekah and Jake have not only built an innovative and bold new educational option for children experiencing trauma, but a resource for educators across the state to observe, train and take lessons back to their own students.
“If we can come alongside the public school system and help it integrate what we have learned here over the past 30 years into their practices, we can break this cycle,” she says.
Academically, Jake says his students are making steady progress. “Children can’t learn when they are in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and for the past two years we have been working to build a space where they are supported, feel safe and can express their needs,” Jake says. The sense of safety felt by students at their school radiates out to all other areas of their lives.
“At the end of the day, we aren’t a treatment facility, we are a school,” Jake says. “We want our students to know that they are a part of a community, that they are valued here. We want them to be proud to be a Hope Academy Highlander.”