New Beginnings Family Academy (NBFA) provides approximately 500 students in Pre-K to 8th grade a meaningful, high-quality education through experience-based learning that helps develop essential social, emotional, and critical-thinking skills. NBFA’s progressive education, with an emotionally responsive practice model, attends to the whole child, not just academics, and focuses on developing collaborative, socially responsible leaders by organically weaving ethics and character-building into daily instruction in small-class settings. NBFA’s student-focused approach brings out the best in each child by getting to know them individually, encouraging curiosity, and fostering their personal interests.
TFF investment total to date (2013-2021): $1.5M
New Beginnings Family Academy’s CEO, Ronelle Swagerty, has served the organization for 18 years in different leadership roles. Swagerty holds an MBA from Fordham University and a Master’s degree in Education from Bank Street College of Education. She led Friends of NBFA, a fundraising support organization for 10 years, before becoming CEO of the Academy in 2013, which includes a Pre-K-6th grade lower school and 7th-8th grade upper school. Swagerty attributes the academy’s successful shift to an SEL-centered, progressive education community partly to TFF’s support: “My grant proposal [in 2013] held a vision that TFF has helped us to realize slowly over the years.” She believes TFF’s long-term funding has allowed NBFA to become a “kinder, gentler” place for students, where SEL is not an “add on” but rather the foundation of the educational experience. Notably, TFF has supported many non-SEL related activities through capacity building investments, including funding the development of an English language arts curriculum and a data specialist position for several years.
NBFA’s SEL implementation journey began in earnest in 2014 by adopting Responsive Classroom, an evidence-based set of instructional and disciplinary practices designed to promote social and emotional skills and positive culture and climate. In 2016, NBFA began working closely with Bank Street College of Education consultants to implement an Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) model by training all educators and building knowledge among families about the SEL-aligned, child-centered approach. Catalyzed by the shift to a more developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed philosophy, several disciplinary policy shifts took place, including ending out of school suspensions. These shifts necessitated deeper and more intentional implementation of Restorative Practices facilitated by an onsite Restorative Justice coordinator.
By 2017, NBFA had adopted a research-validated tool to track student social and emotional growth and needs. The DESSA-mini is a strengths-based, eight item survey about SEL competencies, which NBFA educators complete three times per year for every student. The tool identifies individual and classroom level assets and needs by measuring self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills, personal responsibility, goal-directed behavior, decision-making, and optimistic thinking. In 2021, NBFA joined the newly-established Connecticut State Department of Education’s (CSDE) SEL Assessment Partnership with Aperture Education, provider of the DESSA. Participation in the SEL Assessment Partnership has allowed NBFA to train more of its leaders how to analyze the survey data–previously the function of a data specialist–and identify those children in need of more intensive services. The lower and upper school each have an ERP team and as part of the state’s tiered SRBI Framework, they meet with the principals, the restorative coordinator, the climate coach, and classroom educators to review data together and form an individualized, comprehensive plan for each student.
Developed by Leslie Koplow at Bank Street College of Education in New York, ERP is a “trauma-informed approach to education grounded in a deep understanding of child development and acknowledgement of the role that students’ life experiences play in their ability to learn.”
Emotionally Responsive Practice Core Beliefs
1Children need adult partners to master foundational developmental milestones for social and emotional well-being and learning.
2Strong and supportive relationships with adults at school equip children to regain balance and create greater receptivity to learning.
3Children whose teachers are warm and empathic are more likely to develop positive peer relationships.
The organization’s most recent strategic plan reflects the TFF-funded Theory of Change developed in 2014 and shows no signs of slowing progress: NBFA plans to further embrace the ERP model by expanding their existing Pre-K program into a play-based Early Childhood Center for Pre-K and Kindergarten by 2022-23. For staffing and financial reasons, and also to stay aligned with the ERP model, NBFA will phase out its 7th and 8th grade classrooms in future years. The organization continues to evolve and adapt, pursuing the vision articulated by Swagerty in her 2013 proposal to TFF to ensure students “have voice and agency” and are “healthy and safe in their own skin.”
“Because of the model TFF has helped shape, the children we are graduating are more creative, more free spirited, more collaborative, overall more well rounded. It isn’t only about getting ‘good grades’. With this cohort of children, we find kids are, of course, getting into college, but that more kids are going to trade school, or cosmetology school–they’re able to connect to their real talents and interests and they’re pursuing careers. Now, we ask what they’re passionate about, we notice what they’re good at and support them to be successful in more than one way.”
– Ronelle Swagerty, NBFA CEO
Outcome Data Analysis
NBFA has reported a variety of attendance metrics over the past eight years, including average daily attendance rates by year for the 2013-14 through 2015-16 school years and average daily attendance rates by month for the 2018-19 through 2020-21 school years. Changing metrics make it difficult to examine trends over the course of the investment period. According to data from the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE), rates of chronic absenteeism at NBFA have varied over the past nine years, including a pre-pandemic high of 17% in 2014-15 and a low of 7% in 2015-16. The extremely high rates of chronic absenteeism in 2020-21 related to the unusual circumstances of that school year, when many students were learning virtually for all or part of the year (Fig. 27).
Although NBFA initially reported the number of exclusionary discipline sanctions (out-of-school suspension, in-school suspension, or expulsion) per year, they later shifted to reporting the percentage of students with one or more exclusionary discipline sanction. Data from NBFA, which aligns with data from the CSDE, indicates a substantial drop in sanctions in 2016-17, when NBFA implemented Emotionally Responsive Practice and shifted to a trauma-informed, relationship-based approach. Sanction rates have remained very low in the subsequent years (Fig. 28).
NBFA has used a variety of metrics for academic achievement over the investment period. Although NBFA used the Blue Ribbon Test to assess Reading and Math achievement in 2013-14 (year 1), they changed to the i-Ready Reading and Math assessments in 2014-15, and then changed assessments again in 2017-18 and in 2019-20. For this reason, the case study uses Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) results to examine academic achievement at NBFA over five years. The percentage of students meeting or achieving the standard on the English Language Arts (ELA) and Math SBAC dropped in 2015-16 and 2016-17 when NBFA implemented Emotionally Responsive Practice. While the substantial drop in exclusionary discipline rates that begin in 2016-17 was sustained in the subsequent years, the drop in SBAC scores was not sustained, with rates of proficiency exceeding 2015-16 levels in 2018-19. SBAC data is not available for 2019-20 or 2020-21, due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Fig. 29).
After reporting average scores by grade level on the Child Trends social and emotional skills assessment for 2015-16 and 2016-17, NBFA began to administer the DESSA-mini three times per year in 2017-18. The DESSA-mini is an eight item, strengths-based assessment of K-12 students’ social emotional competencies related to resilience. During each DESSA-mini administration, NBFA teachers complete the assessment for each of their students to capture information about eight social and emotional skills: optimistic thinking, self-management, goal-directed behavior, self-awareness, social awareness, personal responsibility, decision-making, and relationship skills. Raw assessment scores are used to classify students into three groups based on their SEL skills: strength, typical, and need for instruction.
Figs. 30, 31, and 32 reflect data from 2018-19 to 2020-21, when NBFA reported the percentage of children at each skill level at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year; comparable data were not available for 2017-18. As shown below, the percentage of children scored as “need for instruction” decreased over the course of each school year, with the largest change in 2020-21. The percentage of children scored as “strength” generally increased over the course of each school year, whereas the percentage of children scored as “typical” remained fairly stable.
Members of the TFF staff completed the Organizational Management Capacity Assessment Tool for External Analysts (OMET) in 2013-14 and 2014-15 to assess NBFA’s organizational capacity. NBFA’s overall rating for strategic leadership and performance management increased from 2013-14 to 2014-15, while the other two domains remained consistent in both years (Fig. 33).
When the OMET became unavailable, the Foundation shifted to the Impact Capacity Assessment Tool (iCAT) self-assessment in 2015-16. (Note that sample iCAT items are available in the appendix.) Between 2016 and 2021, NBFA’s iCAT scores generally increased in all four domains, with the lowest scores in strategic leadership and the highest scores in outcomes-focused management (Fig. 34).
1 The DESSA, first published in 2009, was developed by researchers at the Devereux Center for Resilient Children (DCRC) to help teachers assess the social and emotional competencies of students. Research has provided substantial evidence of the reliability and validity of the DESSA. Given the time commitment of administering the 72-item DESSA to all children, the researchers who designed the DESSA later developed an abbreviated version in 2011, the DESSA-mini. Research studies have provided evidence of reliability and validity for the DESSA-mini. The DESSA and DESSA-mini are widely used in the United States and beyond, and both are available in print and online formats through Aperture Education. For more information, visit https://apertureed.com/research/?topic=119.