Charter school opens for young women at Seton Home

September 03, 2016

San Antonio Express News
September 3, 2016

Victoria Hernandez spent her 16th birthday interviewing for an apartment at Seton Home. A Jefferson High School dropout, she had a 5-month-old son and was 8 weeks pregnant.

Hernandez said she was living with her mother, but Child Protective Services placed her older son with his father’s side of the family and she was not allowed to visit.

“I did not have a very stable home,” Hernandez said. “Me and my grandma were calling different places to see which one would take me in so I could get him back.”

Hernandez was admitted days later to Seton Home, a South Side residence for young women who are pregnant or parenting and removed from their families due to abuse or neglect. That was almost two years ago.

Now 17, Hernandez is on track to graduate in the spring from a new University of Texas charter school on the Seton Home campus. She’s started researching ways to earn a nursing degree.

“I didn’t think I would ever go back to school or be graduating this year,” Hernandez said.

The charter school, which opened Aug. 16, serves nine of the 20 young women who live at Seton Home, said Kendra Puente, education director. The others are in college, earning their high school equivalency certificates or working, Puente said.

Run by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Seton Home is open to girls age 12 to 17, although once admitted they can stay until their 21st birthday, Puente said. The girls are enrolled in school within days of their arrival, Puente said.

The facility is zoned to Brackenridge High School in the San Antonio Independent School District, but Puente said that was not a good fit for Seton residents because the full-length days, added to Seton Home’s supplemental activities, left little time to spend with their babies. In addition to school, Seton Home requires its residents to attend therapy sessions and parenting education and life skills classes. So the young women were allowed to choose between three alternative schools that offered shorter days: the Healy-Murphy Center, Por Vida Academy Charter High School or San Antonio CAN, another charter school.

Even the alternative schools, however, became a big commitment for Seton Home residents and staff.

“We had some getting home at noon, some getting home at 3:30, some getting home at 5 and it was really difficult for us to provide some of those comprehensive services,” Puente said.

So Seton Home executives and the University of Texas-University Charter School system began planning a new school at the residence. The Najim Family Foundation had already donated three classrooms in memory of Dr. Leslie Parks, an obstetrician who died in 2008, leaving young twins. The rooms were being used for tutoring and summer school programs that helped Seton Home achieve a 100 percent high school graduation rate over the past five years, Puente said. Now the rooms house the charter school at Seton Home.

“Now with the partnership, they’re all getting out at the same time,” Puente said. “We’re able to finish up those comprehensive services by at least 5 p.m. and then they have all the evening time to be with their children, which was really important for us, to work on those attachments and bonding between them and their kids.”

The new school is classified as a public open-enrollment charter, and young women who have moved out of Seton Home can continue to attend, said Sally Arnold, executive principal of UT-UCS’ San Antonio campuses. As such, the school receives funding from the state on a per-student basis. UT-UCS also has two campuses associated with the Laurel Ridge psychiatric treatment center and several more statewide serving foster homes, maternity homes and mental health facilities.

“Who we are and what we do is tied up with serving kids, unique learners in difficult circumstances,” Arnold said.

The Seton Home campus employs two teachers for core subjects, and students can use a computer program to take elective courses such as Spanish. With such small classes, the young women receive much-needed individual attention because most of them have been through multiple placements with Child Protective Services.

“That results in gaps in academic skills,” Arnold said. “The good news here is that the girls are really motivated. They have a lot of reason to be successful. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for them, but it does mean that they’ve got a real supportive environment and they know what’s at stake if they’re not successful.”

The teachers are also trained in trauma-informed care, which takes into account the impact of students’ experiences on brain development, learning styles and emotional needs, Arnold said. One strategy is to take “brain breaks,” giving the students about 15 minutes a few times a day to interact with their babies, eat snacks or keep hydrated.

Hernandez now has two sons, 1 and 2 years old. She gets to check on them about four times during the school day. She also steals glances whenever she passes by the nursery, or when the staff pushes their strollers by the classrooms.

“I like looking at my kids,” she said. “I like that I get to see them more often.”

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