Each morning and afternoon inside the schoolhouse at The Genesis Project, you will find boys working on numbers, learning sentence structures, and sounding out words. Edmond Public Schools teacher Traci Sowers walks from desk to desk, prompting here, coaching there, encouraging everywhere. At first glance, you’d think you were witnessing a typical classroom in action. But this classroom is anything but typical. Every day is different, every child is on a different learning plan and each child is facing challenges most kids can only imagine.
Sowers gets on her knees and directly faces a student on his level, quietly whispering support and giving direction. The boy's reaction is one of frustration, but Traci continues her soft approach, eventually helping the child calm so he can focus on his worksheet. This is success.
The retired principal understands success at The Genesis Project is sometimes determined in millimeters.
“They have multiple diagnoses. You have to undo their tape recorders. You have to continually show them they can trust you.”
Gaining trust is hard. All of her students have been abused or neglected. They carry emotional scars and face challenges with behaviors because of the trauma and instability in their lives. Because of their behaviors, the average boy at Genesis has failed 13 previous foster placements before arriving here for care, therapy, and life skills education.
Most are academically behind other students their age, and school is a trigger for bad behavior. It’s a difficult challenge just to get to school for some, and even harder for them to manage their behaviors when their diagnoses and low self-esteem present hurdles.
“You just continually show them that they can trust you. And once you build a relationship that they do trust you, then you start bringing to mind that – this is what you may have known but you don’t have to worry about that anymore – and teach them other ways to deal with situations. The trust factor is the huge thing.”
Sowers and her colleague, Penny Gooch, another retired principal who tutors the boys after hours, understand the importance of building trust.
“It really is a privilege to work with them because the boys have allowed me to be in their circle. And that’s a lot, Gooch said.”
She said trust eventually allows for a breakthrough moment.
“To me, it’s when they’ve mastered a learning concept or when they’ve implemented strategies we’ve given them – on their own – and they are prideful about their success. Or, for the first time, a student says I’m going to start doing X, instead of Y. It’s when you see them de-escalating their behaviors sooner. They are using another way to manage their frustration.”
Sowers agrees that success is not determined by academic achievement alone.
“It’s when a student says I was a good role model, or another boy can stay the whole time in class. It’s not so much academically because the other must come first before the academics can be taught.”
Both educators help the boys work on IEPs, or individual education plans. Since they’ve come to Genesis, they are seeing improvement in the boys’ academics.
Sowers says it’s the hardest job she’s had but both retired educators keep coming back anyway.
“I just know this is the place I’m supposed to be whether it’s easy or not, whether I go home exhausted, or emotionally exhausted, this is where I’m supposed to be because they know somebody loves them and somebody has hope for them and somebody’s not going to give up,” Sowers said.
“This is the stage that we can really, hopefully have an impact in the right direction – even if it’s just a moment in time. They really end up giving back just as much to you – or more,” Gooch said.