Could a charter boarding school help Rochester’s most at-risk kids?

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The dinner I shared recently in Washington, D.C., with Paul and Joy Langmaid, a married couple in their 30s, and four of the girls with whom they live, was remarkable in many ways. 

For one thing, the girls were much more respectful and well behaved than I’d expect of young teens. One began the meal by leading a prayer (“God is good. God is great. We thank You for our food.”). Another, finding her mac and cheese with a side of broccoli lukewarm, politely asked Paul, “May you please put this in the microwave?”

Peter Lovenheim

But the most remarkable thing about the dinner was that the setting, the meal, and everyone involved were part of a bold experiment in how to educate some of our nation’s most disadvantaged, traumatized, and at-risk kids. 

The dinner was at Monument Academy Public Charter School in northeast D.C., one of just a tiny handful of urban charter boarding schools in the country. The girls are seventh- and eighth-grade students who live at the school on weekdays. Paul and Joy Langmaid are their house parents. 

Monument Academy, founded in 2015, is still relatively new, but already the results are impressive: of current 8th graders who started in fifth grade (who when they first enrolled were on average 3.3 grade levels behind in reading and 2.8 grade levels behind in math), 44 percent are at grade level in reading and 20 percent more have narrowed the gap; the percentage of students reaching grade level in math has doubled, with 20 percent more closing the gap. Moreover, Monument students’ emotional growth and social skills have improved markedly.

Could a similar effort—an urban charter boarding school—work in Rochester?

Monument Academy students relax in a Student Life House.

That same evening I shared dinner with the Langmaids and the students, I also spoke with Emily Bloomfield, Monument’s CEO and co-founder. I asked her about the costs, challenges, and rewards of a public boarding school and whether the model might work in a midsize city like Rochester. An edited version of that interview appears below—as well as my conversation on the subject with Donna Marie Cozine, co-founder and chief educational officer of Rochester’s Renaissance Academy Charter School of the Arts—but first some more about Bloomfield and Monument Academy.

Bloomfield’s background includes economics, public administration, and a hands-on knowledge of public schools. In California, she served as an elected member and president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education, and then in D.C. as a member of the DC Public Charter School Board. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago, a master’s in public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a post-graduate degree in economics from Oxford University. She and her husband, Byron Auguste, an economist who served in the Obama White House, have three children.

In co-founding Monument Academy, Bloomfield’s focus was on children who have been involved in foster care or at risk of entering the foster care system. They may be homeless or have experienced domestic violence, abuse or neglect, or have a parent who is incarcerated or has addiction issues.

Monument Academy students with CEO Emily Bloomfield.

Students touched by the foster care system, Bloomfield learned, move or change schools an average of two to three times a year, are behind their peers academically and emotionally are twice as likely to drop out of high school. Only about 2 percent ever earn a four-year college degree. Bloomfield’s solution was daring: take children from some of the poorest sections of the city—84 percent of Monument students that first year had current or prior contact with foster care, 100 percent qualified for free or reduced meals, and one-third started the year at kindergarten or first grade reading level—and provide a 24-hour learning environment and the stability of a safe and nurturing place to live. 

Her plan also took advantage of an unusual feature of D.C.’s education law that offers extra funding to schools that provide housing to their students. (This is why another non-profit, the SEED Foundation, began its own public boarding experiment in D.C. The SEED school was profiled on “60 Minutes” and featured in the movie “Waiting for Superman.” SEED has since opened schools in Baltimore and Miami, where education laws were amended to cover costs of student housing.) 

With additional financial support from major foundations, Monument launched operations, acquiring a former elementary school building in northeast D.C. In the first year, the school enrolled 40 fifth-grade students. To address students’ mental health issues, they hired almost as many therapists and counselors as teachers. Since then, Monument has expanded one grade each year and today serves 130 students in fifth through eighth grades. Boarding allows not only for enhanced academics but also for extensive after-school activities including sports, Girl Scouts, dance, cooking, art, book and chess clubs.

During the school week, students live in single-gender dorm-like apartments of up to 10 kids with house parents, usually a married couple (and sometimes the couple’s children and pets). Students sleep in bunk beds in shared bedrooms. There’s a communal kitchen and living room, shared bathrooms for students, and two bedrooms and a private bathroom for the house parents.

Family-style living allows house parents to teach social skills. In addition to sharing and emotion-control, this includes specific skills. 

“Students earn points for speaking politely and not arguing,” house parent Paul Langmaid says. “They also learn to introduce themselves when they meet people and shake hands while looking the person in the eye.”   

The evening I visited, all the girls I met did exactly that. With enough points, Paul explains, students gain privileges, such as choosing which chores they want to do: sink, counters, table or mopping. 

Students live in the school homes from Sunday evening through Friday afternoon, and then go home for the weekend to their foster families, parents, or guardians.

At dinner that evening, I ask the girls how it felt to leave Monument Academy and go home for the weekend. Immediately, two begin singing in unison—and with big smiles—the spiritual, “Oh, Freedom!”

“What freedom is it that you like so much on the weekends?” I ask.

“To eat real food,” they say, laughing, “go to bed when we want and get up when we want, and listen to the music we want.”    

Clearly, Monument had succeeded in teaching them social skills without dampening their spirit or senses of humor.

In Rochester today, a dozen or so public charter schools serve about 6,100 students, or nearly 18 percent of the school population. The schools vary in terms of location, academic emphasis and culture, but I’m not aware of any that has a residential component. 

Emily Bloomfield

In my discussion with Bloomfield, we explored issues involved with charter boarding schools and whether the model could potentially benefit some Rochester students. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

There are some 7,000 charter schools in the country today that enroll nearly 3.2 million students, but only a handful of charters include boarding? Why isn’t it more common?  

Well, there are lots of private boarding schools, of course—always have been. But it’s very difficult to do this as a public school. There are cost considerations and it’s very complex work with significant risks. And a big factor is fear of failure. In education there’s a huge fear of failure and therefore a high degree of tolerance of known failure and a huge aversion to unknown failure—even if the risk of failure might lead to better outcomes.

Have you been afraid of failure at Monument?

Everyday I’m afraid of failure. But that’s just part of the work I have to do. If helping kids is something we care about, which I do, we can each pick different ways of doing it. This is the way I pick because I just can’t look at society’s failures every day—deep poverty and the stresses it brings—and think that part of my life didn’t involve addressing it.

Could a midsize city like Rochester, N.Y., be suitable for a charter boarding school?

It’s a question of need. Do you have kids who are homeless, living in shelters, temporary housing, or with guardians or extended family—couch-surfing but not in a permanent home? Do you have kids with an incarcerated parent or a parent struggling with substance abuse or mental illness? Do you have kids who have been removed from their families into the foster system or who are at risk of removal, and do you want to prevent that?

The annual cost per-pupil for a child at Monument Academy is nearly $60,000—nearly three times the typical cost for a regular city student. Could a smaller community realistically afford that?

Well, it’s important to have a funding formula (from the city) that includes the residential piece. It’s unusual to have this, but it can be added by legislation. That’s what recently happened in Miami with the SEED school there. Also, half our students have IEPs (individual education programs) due to behavioral or other disabilities so that’s up to 40 percent of the cost per student. A lot of the cost is for personnel to address special needs—special ed coordinators, counselors, therapists, small classes. You’re going to pay that regardless of where the student is enrolled. But you also need to ask: what’s the cost of not doing it? Certainly in D.C., there’s a lot of money spent in poorly delivered services with the same results, which is failure. We hope to demonstrate better and better outcomes for kids that help makes the case for funding in other communities because the cost of not offering this—dropping out, winding up in the juvenile justice system, which is the biggest predictor of incarceration as an adult—that cost is estimated to be $245,000.

Thinking of a school in Rochester, could they ever do this without the kind of major philanthropic support Monument receives?

If a donor were able to provide the residential building, I think you could do a lot with whatever the regular revenue is and then top it off with donations for boarding.

Could an existing charter school add a residential program?

Sure, they would just have to amend their charter. In fact, before I started this I put out some feelers to some charters here to see if there was any interest, but there wasn’t. They have their model and they’re sticking to it. “Good luck,” they said, and “Oh, by the way, we have some students for you!”

House parents are a key to making the boarding program work. Who have you found, over the years, is attracted to these jobs?  

People who have done house parenting. It’s like its own world and the ones who turn out best, for them it’s a career choice and a lifestyle; they feel called to do it.

Do you ever get complaints that by having students live with house parents—which in practice resembles a traditional family—you’re imposing middle class values on these kids?  

We’re not passing judgment on families by offering our students another experience. We have a high percentage of African-American staff working directly with the kids as role models and we work to validate the kids’ and their families’ experiences as worthwhile. 

This is something we offer and there are benefits to it. During the school week here, your child will sleep, have good nutrition, live a particular way, learn cooking skills, and have other opportunities. Our house parents let kids know that is the way we do it at school, but when you go home or into your neighborhood you may do things differently: you may eat dinner at different hours and in different ways, and you’ll need to navigate your neighborhood. Later, when you go into the workplace, there’ll be another way of doing things so learning to navigate different worlds is part of being successful. 

Do you offer what is sometimes called “values education”?

Yes. The values are core values of kindness, integrity, mindfulness, and positivity. Also being honest, owning up if you make a mistake, and apologizing. Managing emotions is important, too: a lot of our kids can easily feel angered or triggered by something. What are my coping techniques? How do I recognize the feelings I’m having and learn to manage them? These are important to emotional life and well-being and are not attributes of any particular culture

What gives you most satisfaction about the residential piece?

School is work, but with the boarding you see kids form relationships, learn to problem solve, and acquire new skills like preparing meals, and even reading to the houseparent’s child. Knowing they have that breathing space to relax and have fun and grow—that’s rewarding.

Would you like to see more residential charters around the country?

I would. There are so many things we’ve learned: things we’ve done well and mistakes we’ve made. I’d love to be able to provide in-house residential training for school leaders, teachers, and others. They can actually come here and have a lived experience— you’ve got to live it. 

Monument Academy students enjoy afternoon snack in a Student Life House.

After my visit to Monument Academy, I spoke by phone with Donna Marie Cozine, co-founder and chief educational officer of Renaissance Academy Charter School of the Arts.

Founded in 2014 with its campus in Greece, Renaissance offers kindergarten through sixth grades and serves about 460 students, more than 90 percent of them from the city of Rochester.  

I was curious, given Cozine’s experience in running a charter school in Rochester, what she thought of the boarding model.

“Charters began as a place for innovation,” she says, “and I think it’s wonderful that some places can do that by having boarding schools. If you had that model here, I think you could certainly fill the seats, but you’d have to sit down and look at the funding stream. 

“In New York State we get 68 percent of the money that districts spend on their own pupils. Can you make the model function on that? You need wrap-around staff, 24 hours a day. You’d have to figure in the extra building space for sleeping, plus dinner—breakfast, lunch and snacks are covered, but not dinner. I do think there’d have to be a quite a bit of philanthropy to get up and running and to sustain it. But it’s a very interesting idea and if anyone in the community wanted to consider starting one, I’d be happy to sit around the table and be thought partners with them.”

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. You can reach Peter with comments or suggestions for his “Letter from Washington” at [email protected].

2 thoughts on “Could a charter boarding school help Rochester’s most at-risk kids?

  1. I’m an educator with more than 20 years of urban experience in Rochester, and I have thought about this very idea for a long time! It’s something that hasn’t been seriously considered outside of the mental health/clinical residential model for students with severe behavioral issues. For many reasons, which I’ve somewhat mapped out, I DEFINITELY think it could work. I would be quite interested in any subsequent discussions on this topic.
    Petrina Johnson

  2. Whether it is a boarding charter school or another type of charter school, it will only make rich people richer. It won’t help young people. Charter schools are coming under greater criticism every day. People do not want them. People value public education more.

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