This way to hope

This way to hope

"I’m ugly. I HATE school!"

That’s what 11-year-old Melody* constantly told staff at Cunningham’s CIRCLE Academy Vermilion (CAV) when she arrived in November 2020. She also said things like, "I’m the bad one" and "I’m so much trouble, no one wants to help me." In the classroom, Melody was defiant and aggressive and refused to complete tasks. At times, she would yell, swing at staff and rip up homework papers. She also struggled to keep up with a daily hygiene routine which impacted her self-esteem. Melody was feeling hopeless.

Youth, like Melody, who participate in our CIRCLE Academy Education Programs in Urbana and Rossville live with their families in surrounding communities. They have unique behavioral and emotional challenges which have prevented them from being successful in a public-school environment. Our staff identify the individual needs and strengths of each student and builds on those strengths, both academically and behaviorally with the goal of successfully returning them to public school.

Melody’s outbursts and low self-esteem stemmed from the absence of receiving validation, structure or nurturing care on a consistent basis. The CAV team responded by intentionally checking in with her, complimenting her and supporting her even when she was having a difficult day. They helped her set up a hygiene routine every morning including helping with styling her hair and allowed her to earn incentives that were meaningful to her with good behavior. The results of her new routine were very positive.

"These changes started to improve Melody’s outlook and how she interacted with others," CAV social worker Ms. Liz said. "Now, she openly asks for hugs and positive attention which, in the past, she would have acted out to get that attention."

While Melody struggled in public school, with an individualized education plan, consistent support and positive reinforcement from staff, Melody began making strides in the classroom. The one-on-one attention she received really helped her thrive. Struggling initially to simply write her own name, Melody was now able to write sentences, read sight words, and was open to learning new things. In March, she was named "Student of the Month" for her class and told Ms. Liz how much she liked the school and how everyone was nice to her.

Melody’s self-esteem greatly improved, and with the help of CAV staff, she began to take pride in her appearance including a new haircut and style.

"She also got a pair of sunglasses that day and came to the classroom looking like a movie star," Ms. Dani, a teaching assistant, said. "You could see how confident and proud she was."

Ms. Anita, CIRCLE’s physical education teacher, agreed.

"She really felt good about herself," Ms. Anita said. "We told her daily how beautiful she looked, and you could see she finally believed it."

Melody’s difficult past made it difficult for her to trust others, build relationships with adults, share her feelings, or admit she had made a bad choice for fear of rejection. On a particularly difficult day, Melody had to visit the refocus room. When Ms. Liz met with her later that day, Melody was hesitant to discuss what had happened.

"Each time I asked her why she was in refocus, she would change the subject," Ms. Liz said. "I told her I wouldn’t be mad at her and would still like her after she told me what she did. Finally, after the third time, she asked if I would really still like her and when I said yes, she told me about her behavior in detail. I explained to her how her honesty made me like her even more. She smiled, asked for a hug and started a new activity. That was a huge step for Melody because it meant she trusted me enough to risk rejection by telling me the truth."

Much of Melody’s progress has come from a consistent routine and the understanding that CAV staff are willing and wanting to help her. While they hold her accountable for her behavior, they also reinforce that no matter what, they will still care about her. And while she still has a long way to be whole again, she is headed in the right direction. She has hope for a better future.

"You can see she wants to be successful," Ms. Anita said. "The more we can show her we care and how much potential she has, the more she is going to go places!"

*name has been changed to protect the privacy of our youth.