Katie Ryan might have spent her career in education as an English teacher, but she felt a calling to pursue what some would consider a tougher path—one with the potential to dramatically reshape troubled young lives.
After working as an English teacher in New Haven and Hamden public schools for nearly a decade, including serving as the English Department chair, Katie, who also has a Master’s Degree in special education, joined the Navigator and Pioneer teams at Hamden Middle School, which provided intensive academic and social-emotional support to small groups of students. From there she moved on to guide the Therapeutic Learning Services (TLS) program at North Haven High School, working with special education students dealing with emotional disturbances and disabilities that significantly impacted their educational and social growth.
“I’ve always been drawn to working with students who struggle in one way or another,” says Katie, the new principal of NAFI CT’s Touchstone School. “I was a good English teacher, but there are a lot of great English teachers in the world. There aren’t a lot of people who have a love for the population of kids that I do. It was a calling for me. It was something I felt drawn to doing.”
The 55-acre Touchstone campus in Litchfield, with roughly 25 staff members, is home to two programs for young women involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems who are referred by the state Court Support Services Division (CSSD) or the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
Touchstone School is a state-approved private special education school at the heart of a state-funded residential treatment program, and the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program is “a great model of treatment focused on mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness,” Katie says.
“Being able to run a school and work with clinical staff in implementing DBT was a big draw for me,” Katie says, explaining that at Touchstone, a clinician and a skills trainer give adolescents explicit skills-coaching in the issues that contribute to problem behavior.
“I am a huge believer in the importance of understanding trauma,” Katie says. “With trauma comes shame and the kids carry that. They feel like they’re inherently unlovable, unteachable. We say, ‘We understand, we’re here, and we’re not going to give up on you.’ There’s very intensive work done here around family therapy, individual therapy, and specific treatment goals. It’s accessible and effective. It’s amazing what a few adults who try to understand can accomplish.”
Touchstone also succeeds because of its intentionally small size. The maximum number of young women living on campus is 16, with space allotted for an additional four day students.
“We have a really unique opportunity because we get to have very small classes,” Katie says, explaining some of the challenges for the Touchstone School staff. The young women often arrive with a very negative impression of school, and given that the average stay is four to six months, the teachers have the challenge of trying to inspire them within a compressed period.
“Fundamentally I believe all kids want to do well. They just might not have the skills yet,” Katie says. “With individual attention, and a high level of support and encouragement from teachers, most students here enjoy learning.”
The ultimate goal is to have the young women return to their families if that is an option.
Summer Camp & Grants
Since coming on board as the principal at Touchstone, Katie has aggressively pursued grants, securing two key ones to date, including a $30,000 technology grant for new laptops, Smartboards, educational monitoring software, and more.
A state Department of Education enrichment grant, meanwhile, is funding an innovative summer camp experience for the young women at Touchstone from Aug. 9 to 13.
“Camp is a different experience,” Katie says. “You’re trying new things. You’re taking healthy risks. You’re getting dirty … and most of our students have never experienced anything like this.”
There will be arts-and-crafts, fishing, gardening and horticulture, an adventure series, team building, and a closing awards ceremony with a campfire.
“The thing about adolescents is they’re going to pretend they hate everything,” Katie says, but the hope is the experience will disrupt the routine in such a fun way the new mentality will be more like, “I’ve never really done arts & crafts but I’ll try candle-making … .”
Coming Full Circle
Fourteen years ago, before becoming an English teacher, Katie worked at Touchstone as a supervisor in the residential program, and actually met her future husband while working on the Litchfield campus.
It was an experience that left an indelible mark. She always believed in “stopping to talk about issues when you need to talk about issues,” was passionate about explicit social/emotional instruction, and had learned to focus on why students act as they do.
Katie didn’t find such an engaged approach in her public education teaching experience—at least not initially. “Looking at where behavior comes from was missing in most classes and most schools,” Katie says. “It was really nice to see over the time I was in public education that people started talking about the reason behind behavior.”
“I love that there’s a push to really try to connect with students and meet them where they are, whether educationally or emotionally,” Katie adds. “The whole movement to see where kids are coming from, and how school might have been traumatic in the past, or that they might not have thought they can learn, is a really exciting time in education.”
Making a Difference Runs in the Family
“I always had perception of him as an academic who was serious and rigorous,” Katie says. “When he passed away, so many former students came, and many said things like, ‘I wasn’t really a great student, but your grandfather was always kind to me,’ or ‘he made the effort to understand me.’ To find out he also had a heart for the kids who were struggling, it was a cool moment for me as an educator.”
It’s that heart that Katie brings to her mission at Touchstone, and it’s a philosophy that fits right in with the team approach of the clinical, residential, and educational staff. “The other day I walked in on our campus director making lunch because lunch needed to be made,” Katie says. “I’m happy to be back in this environment where it truly is a team. Everyone is just on board to help the girls. It is a special thing. I don’t think you see that everywhere.”