Though Afira DeVries experienced financial insecurity as a child, she doesn’t recall feeling the effects of it, insulated by the cocoon of a loving and safe family.
That changed one day in third grade when she was struggling to keep up in math class. Rather than provide help, her teacher scoffed at her and insulted her family, saying they were “too poor to pay the tutor” so her learning must be “his problem.”
“Never had I considered poverty a defining characteristic (of my family), but that changed that day, and for years I struggled with the emotional aftermath of realizing that others may view me as less than others,” DeVries said.
Today, DeVries is the CEO of the Monarch School in San Diego, a public school dedicated to educating unhoused students, and she credits the education she received from Arizona State University’s online master’s degree program in sociology with helping her better address issues her students and advocate for their success on a legislative front.
“I'm representing … a community that's perceived as struggling with poverty in a way that allows me to have really deep and rich discussions not just about the issue, but the roots of the issue,” she said. “A lot of what I learned through (the ASU Online) program has positioned Monarch School as a subject matter expert and capable of assisting legislators and other powerbrokers in understanding social conditions differently.”
Turning hurt into healing
As an adult, DeVries found a successful career in the nonprofit sector, taking leadership positions in six organizations dedicated to public well-being. But she never forgot the embarrassment of that moment in third grade and what it taught her about the power of stigma. She wanted to better understand the roots of stigma and inequity so she could do everything in her power to create positive change for students in similar situations.
“As I built my career, I realized that what I wanted was the deeper knowledge and the capacity to speak from a theoretical and practical place about why the social conditions that we deal with in this country exist,” she says. “And then, therefore, be able to really effectively create programs that address those inequities.”
Shortly after completing her degree in 2020, DeVries became CEO of the Monarch School. In this position, she feels passionate about using her personal experiences and sociology background to bring students the sense of belonging that was taken from her long ago.
“Schools can and should be a place of community for all kids,” she said. “For kids who live with complex trauma, school is often the only safe haven they know.”
The Monarch School takes a trauma-informed approach to teach academic skills, financial literacy, mental health awareness and career preparation to unhoused students. It was founded by Sandra McBrayer in 1987, who was later named Teacher of the Year by Bill Clinton for her work. The school educates and provides basic needs to 300 students per year on average from kindergarten through 12th grade.
As DeVries continues to lead the school, she looks forward to growing the organization’s national impact. In the past year, they’ve seen big successes, including successful therapy programs and improved student outcomes. In fact, recent research from the University of San Diego studied the students for three years and found that their social skills, self-esteem and sense of belonging had improved, especially through art therapy.
In continuing this success, the school opened a new arts building called The Chrysalis, where they hosted a successful auction with students’ artwork to raise money for its art and music programs this May.
“My next big area of work is going to be to scale my organization and to bring the work that we do here in San Diego at the Monarch School to other communities,” DeVries said. “(We want to) empower other educators … so that they are more effective in being able to relate to the trauma that unhoused kids deal with.”
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