Students with behavioral problems who get kicked out of school are sometimes assigned to a classroom with Francesca DePaolo. As an instructional assistant at Bancroft Alternative School, DePaolo works with a team that includes case managers and therapists. Together, they help some of the most challenging children in Spokane — 9- to 14-year-olds with mental health problems as well as kids who have been neglected and abused. Many of these children also live in poverty.
On most days, it’s not unusual for a child to get frustrated and yell out profanities in the middle of class, according to DePaolo.
Sometimes, someone might break a window, throw a desk across the room or threaten to hurt people. When things get really bad, DePaolo will take an out-of-control student into a padded safety room or call a resource team to help restrain the child.
“It’s an emotionally draining job,” says DePaolo, who teaches Spanish to the kids and eats breakfast with them every school day. “We know that these students have nowhere else to go so we extend ourselves to help fill the void in their lives.”
After a difficult day, DePaolo recharges by gardening and pulling dandelions and other weeds in her yard. It’s a chance for her to spend time outdoors, to dig in the dirt and to talk to her neighbors. “I find it very therapeutic,” she says. “Weeding has taught me an important lesson in life — that you can’t give up.”
Her colleagues’ support and encouragement also keep her from suffering burnout, says DePaolo, who has worked at the school for the last five years. Every day after school, she and other staff members at Bancroft take the time to debrief and support each other.
“I don’t feel like I’m ever alone,” she says. “For me, this work is fulfilling because we show children who have been traumatized that there is hope.”