A Harbor for the Most Vulnerable

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Mott Haven Academy Charter School opened last year with a mission to serve the most vulnerable of students: those who are currently in the city’s child welfare and foster care systems.

Many of the children have been victims of abuse and trauma, and often unsteady family lives leave them craving a learning environment that is safe and predictable, explained Jessica Nauiokas, the principal and founder.

This type of at-risk population calls for teachers who are not only expertly trained, but also patient, consistent and compassionate—qualities Nauiokas finds abundant in student specialist Tynisha Wynder.

Photo by Karl Crutchfield

Photo by Karl Crutchfield

Wynder is so good at making students feel at ease, it has earned her the nickname “the child whisperer” among her colleagues.

“She just knows how to read kids and their needs,” said instructional specialist Linda Chang. “And they know they can trust her and find comfort and peace with her.”

Chang recalled an episode from earlier in the school year, when teachers were struggling to assist a set of kindergartners who had a hard time staying in the classroom. Instead of responding verbally, the twins would simply grunt at the adults and bang their little bodies into them.

When Wynder was called in to intervene, she spent the next few days quietly watching the brothers. One morning at breakfast, the two got particularly agitated, and it occurred to Wynder that they were simply overwhelmed by having to choose what to eat. So she held up each item and asked if it was what they wanted, noting their reaction. She had found a way to communicate with them.

Her calm and methodical approach paid off, Chang said. Over the course of the year, the boys’ verbal skills improved so much they could remain in class all day.
“With 90 kids around you wanted to just check it off as, ‘These two are being difficult,’” Chang said. “But Tynisha was able to observe that every time they bumped into an adult, they were asking for help.”

Wynder, who came to Haven Academy with a master’s degree in special education and years of teaching experience, knew from the beginning that providing a constant and reliable presence is crucial when working with children who are often passed from one home to the next.

To allow students to start off their day feeling supported, she volunteered to leave her Manhattan apartment at 6:30 every morning to meet the school bus at its first stop in the South Bronx and ride along for the first few months.

The 40 kindergartners and 1st graders getting onboard were greeted by a familiar face, and over the next hour, Wynder read books with them, played games and sang songs. By the time the youngsters got off, they were calm, happy and ready for school.

For the few children who still continue to have tantrums on a regular basis, Wynder has developed a number of tools they can use to deal with their frustration. Social and emotional feeling charts, timers or mirrors help them get settled. They can to join the “Cool It Club,” created for those who need help with anger management, or the “Feel Good Club,” meant for those with low self-esteem.

All of her work at Haven Academy, Wynder says, feeds into the school’s mission to enable students to develop the ability to “learn, grow and persevere”—despite their challenging lives: “We want to be part of the village that tries to raise these children who don’t have a family.”

Tynisha Wynder
Student Specialist, Mott Haven Academy Charter School

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