Monarch School principal says housing status doesn’t define students, they define success on their own terms

All it took was a visit to the Monarch School campus, and Afira DeVries was in full swing. Although her previous career path took her to lead more global nonprofit operations, she was intrigued by Monarch’s commitment to educating and educating homeless children and their families.

“It’s been a year and I can confirm that my instincts were perfect. I never enjoyed a role or a mission more than I love this job, ”she says.

DeVries accepted the role of president and CEO of the school’s nonprofit arm, Monarch School Project, last year. The association operates the Monarch School in partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education. The public school currently serves 300 homeless students in Kindergarten to Grade 12, using a trauma-informed approach to meet the academic, social, emotional and life skills needs of each student. Prior to working with Monarch, she was the US Director of the nonprofit Spring Impact and President and CEO of United Way of Roanoke Valley in Virginia.

DeVries, 46, lives in Scripps Ranch with her husband, Jason; their two daughters, Ava Rosa and Amora; and their dogs Vito Corleone (a mix of Shih Tzu and Yorkshire terrier) and Luca Brasi (a mix of beagle and Chihuahua). She took the time to talk about her work at Monarch, the school’s new arts hub in Barrio Logan, and when an organized crime operation saw her as a potential threat.

Question: Why did you want to join the work at Monarch, as President and CEO? What attracted you to taking this job?

A: I am passionate about directing my energy towards social challenges that are frequently, over time, informally viewed as “intractable”. I have often found the roaming condition to be the prime example of such a condition. I joined Monarch because our students face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and yet they learn to harness their potential, heal and seek stability as adults, and they teach the world that they are not. lost causes. These are not problems to be solved or victims to be saved. Instead, they are kids with dreams and goals, and they thrive when given the support and space to do so. I joined an extraordinarily successful organization with the intention of making it accessible to more children and families in more places. We are a one-of-a-kind operation; I would like to change that.

Question: What are your goals and vision for the school?

A: At Monarch, we aim to build a future in which a roaming experience does not define or limit a child’s promise and potential. One of my goals for the future is to share the expertise of the caring professionals at Monarch with more young people. This includes codifying our practices and developing learning modules for schools, extracurricular care providers and preschool learning environments with the goal of maximizing support for children who manage trauma. Fundamentally, Monarch School is positioned to explore the best approach to bring our proven practices to more children and families who are homeless and other traumatic barriers to healthy, stable lives.

Question: Can you talk about the unique challenges faced by students experiencing homelessness in their studies? And what is Monarch doing to help students overcome these challenges?

A: Monarch School serves students in San Diego County who are homeless. These students face barriers to receiving the education they deserve, and the trauma they experience as a result of homelessness can have lasting impacts on their academic success. When children are not housed, they often face frequent mobility, making it difficult to stay connected to the same school and maintain consistent progressive learning. Even beyond mobility, the emotional upheaval of being dislodged takes a mental and physical toll. Students experience trauma that overshadows any capacity for concentration or academic retention, and they are often exhausted and emptied of the state of insecurity they have endured.

This experience in their childhood has the potential to be one they repeat in adulthood. Homeless students who do not graduate from high school or GED are four and a half times more likely to experience homelessness as adults.

What I like about Scripps Ranch …

I love the views from my garden. I have a nice glimpse of the distant mountains and I see the hot air balloons take off. I also like the proximity to everything without feeling crowded or rushed.

Question: Tell us about The Chrysalis: Monarch Center for the Arts.

A: We celebrated the opening on August 26 and the new space is just a few blocks from our main campus in Barrio Logan. Chrysalis will provide dedicated visual arts and performance spaces for K-12 students, families and the community to cultivate their own resilience through the power of creative expression. With our own focus for the arts, we will deepen and expand our dance and visual arts programming while creating and launching programs in theater, music, media arts, poetry and creative writing, as well as student entrepreneurship programs. Additionally, we plan to provide much-needed rental spaces for community arts partners and organizations for their own arts programming, expanding its arts network and creating mutually beneficial partnerships that serve the community as a whole. This is an expansion of our creative youth development program.

Question: Can you talk about the mural that was painted outside the center by the students? How would you describe what the mural looks like to our readers who haven’t seen it?

A: Local visual artist Araceli Carrera worked alongside our students to develop the design for the mural and bring the students’ vision to life. The mural is a colorful image of a butterfly with outstretched wings, but when you take a closer look you will see the human anatomy of a heart in the center with a set of lungs for the wings.

Question: What was the inspiration for the final design of the mural? How important is this fresco in the context of similar work in the Barrio Logan neighborhood?

A: The image has two meanings: the literal representation of the butterfly is associated with our monarch brand and the notion that the chrysalis is an incubating butterfly. The most abstract imagery is that of the heart and lungs, representing the idea that “art is life”. Our children are a moving and creative group.

Question: How has your job at Monarch been difficult?

A: The most difficult part of our job is watching the volatility of the world around us impact our students and their families. We are generously supported by our community, but the implications of a deadly pandemic for homeless families are severe and we have had to build our capacity to meet the accommodation and housing needs of all of our students at one point. where the entire nation has been in emergency mode. The reality is that our students have always faced inequalities, and this pandemic has put those inequalities in the spotlight. The most difficult part of my job is, and always will be, knowing that good enough is not good enough; our students and their families need and deserve permanent, stable housing in order to truly stabilize and prosper in life, which requires a broad, dignified and solution-oriented effort on the part of all involved.

Question: What has been rewarding about this job?

A: There are no bad days when you are with kids. They are hilarious and nothing is so serious when a kid is around to remind you that you are not that interesting or important then you might as well get over them.

Question: What did this job teach you about yourself?

A: I have to remember that prejudices are real and that I am not immune to it. Judgment and compassion are incompatible concepts, and there is no room for judgment in the service space. It’s common for people to judge parents, and although I guard against that, it does creep in sometimes. I learned to spot these feelings in myself and in others and to control them because they have no value, they do not help foster healthy and supportive relationships in our environment or wherever dignity is valued. .

Question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Never be so smart that you have nothing more to learn. This is advice that I now give often, and if you hear it from me, it’s meant to be a warning that you might need to listen more than talk.

Question: What’s the one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: People might be surprised to learn that I was once forced into hiding from an organized crime syndicate because I overheard a conversation that I shouldn’t have known about!

Question: Please describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.

A: Well I’m new to town and moved for a weird time. So far I’ve really enjoyed a trip to the beaches with my kids, or a shopping trip to vintage boutiques in and around North Park.


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